Wherein I confess my OCD tendency about research

I have a few things that will relegate a book to "wallbanger" status. You know the status I'm talking about: you get halfway through it, and it's so bad that you've thwacked your forehead with the book so often that you finally give the old noggin a rest and slam the book against the wall.

First of all, if there's a heroine who's continually doing one thing after another that's really Too Stupid To Live, I just can't keep rooting for her, even if I know it's going to be okay in the end. One dumb thing, yeah, I can buy that. But a series of dumb things? Nah. Which is a reason I'm so not a fan of horror movies, because we all know the teenage girl WILL go down into the cellar even though the boogie man is always waiting for her in the dark.

Second of all, if there is a plot hole big enough to drive a truck through it, it's hard for me to hang on until the end. The guilty will go nameless here, because I've read some huge best-selling authors who sometimes, bless their hearts, have done this. For the most part, I try to be understanding -- I'm a writer, after all, but I can't write a red herring that doesn't stink to high heaven. So it's perfectly understandable that authors will have an off day.

But lack of research is an unforgivable bugaboo to me.

When I read a book that is about something I know - and believe me, with my work history, I've done a little of all of it - it drives me slap dab crazy if the author gets it wrong.

Sure, authors are allowed to take a little creative license. But please, if you're writing about a journalist at a small weekly paper, make sure that you make him sweat losing those advertisers and have him take out his own trash. And if any of your characters are teachers? If you don't let them sometimes grouse about their students and their students' parents, they won't be true to life.

Plus there's the added fact that I'm a documentary-nerd-freak. I love documentaries. I love history. And if you have a girl heroine in a western, I'd prefer you not have her in Levis before Levi Strauss himself invented jeans.

Because I'm so hard on authors about getting the details right, I'm twice as hard on myself. Take SECRET SANTA, the Harlequin Heartwarming Romance that is scheduled to come out in November of this year. It's about a young doctor out of med school, back in her small hometown to practice medicine. Am I doctor? Nope. So that's why I bugged the stew out of four, count 'em, four doctors to be sure I was getting my details right.

Did I get all of them right? Probably not, I'm sorry to say. But I tried. I didn't just Google a Wikipedia entry (though that is always a good start to make sure your heroine isn't wearing Levis before Levi invented them). And not only did I talk to real live doctors, I availed myself of some other things on that World Wide Web.

For instance, iTunes U is a marvelous collection of all sorts of information -- usually from colleges, so you know it's fairly in depth and accurate. I was lucky enough to run across a series of emergency medicine lectures that were made for University of Virginia emergency residents. It was a cool series that I'm still listening to, because who knows when I might make another character a doctor?

But don't underestimate the power of an emailed question to a perfect stranger. I've learned that experts like to help get the details right (I know I do, of the few things I'm an expert in). I've had excellent luck emailing all sorts of people with the subject line: Published author needs assistance with current manuscript. I think I even had luck back before I was published by saying "author needs assistance." Usually, if they answer you back, you can send a series of questions in an email and they'll email you back.

And your payment back? Be sure to feature them in your acknowledgments. It will give them a plug, and it's always cool to see your name in print. After all, isn't that why all of us writers write?


  1. Cynthia, I so hear you. I know I've slipped up a time or two. I hate it when I do and a reader like you catches a gaff. I bang my head against the wall for weeks. And the information we find online sometimes isn't correct. That we have to often learn the hard way. I hate to toss out a question on a loop thinking everyone is so busy they don't have time to worry about somebody elses problem, but your suggestion to do that makes a lot of sense. Thanks for the Monday morning pep talk.

  2. Hi Cynthia,
    Great post. I too email people with questions or stop in-for example my heroine in book two of my series is a mechanic so I visited a shop and my hero is a firefighter, so I visited a firestation-I just love research! lol:)


  3. Good post, Cynthia. We've cultivated many sources over the years, but like Tony Hillerman said to me one time, our purpose is to entertain. If you're looking for exact details (of a Navajo ceremonial Sing, for example) go to the library or find your own experts, and make sure facts are verified by two independent sources. We write fiction. Background enriches. Get the details you choose to share correct, but remember that your primary function is to tell a good story. Aimee Thurlo, author of the Ella Clah mysteries optioned by CBS, and A Time of Change, stories set in a trading post outside the Navajo Rez. Homespun Christmas - Harl. Heartwarming

    1. Aimee! Ella Clah mysteries optioned by CBS! Have I missed it? Is it coming? Wow! Good for you!

    2. Muriel they optioned it and they have an excellent script. (no we didn't write it. Goldberg and Rabkin did) Whether it'll ever go into production or not, I guess time will tell. Our vampire series was also optioned by Red Nation Films. Haven't seen a script for that though.

  4. Cynthia - excellent advice. I find myself more in danger from the things I THINK I KNOW, than from things I'm completely blank about and have to research. And none of us is perfect. But we should be doing our absolute best to track down every last detail. There's somebody out there who'll know.

  5. What a great post, Cynthia :) I'm not such a stickler on detail unless I'm the writer then I scour the Internet, libraries- even Google Map to get everything right. I used to live in NYC and had a friend in SoHo and I still double checked where Broome st was in relation to Spring st- where the nearest dog parks are,Korean Deli- so I got the setting right for WISH ME TOMORROW. As a teacher, I know a lot of the behind the scenes action in schools with regard to how students relate to each other and teachers and teachers interact with each other. On my YA books I've had editors express surprise that kids really behave or speak a certain way and for the sake of authenticity, I have to tell them that yes- even best friends insult each other- pretty badly- and give it right back.. Much as we wish it was still LITTLE WOMEN and ANNE IF GREEN GABLES- and boy do I wish it was :)

  6. I still remember tossing a book across the room. There heroine was a kindergarten teacher. It was October. She and her class had just taken the seeds out of pumpkins when the dismissal bell rang. She told her students goodbye.
    You don't let five year old leave without going with them.
    And, if you send them to their parents covered in pumpkin goo, you'll get lots and lots and lots of phone calls.
    I sometimes think people think they can write teachers because they were students. Nope, different animal.

  7. Ugh. Research. We have a love/hate relationship. When I'm in creation mode, I loooove to research and let it inspire ideas and plot twists that I hadn't considered. But when I'm in edit mode, I hate it. I hate having to double-check what the weather was like on a certain date or if 12 million viewers tuning in to a show is good or bad. Can't the readers just take my word for it? LOL


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