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Have You Done Your Research?

Have you ever been reading a book or watching a movie where you were SO invested in the characters and the plot and the romance… you had fallen completely into the story and then something happened that was just WRONG and you were thrown out of that movie or book so fast that you got whiplash?

Maybe the issue is something that you have personal experience with. For example, if your best friend in high school suffered from depression and you are reading a book where they get the symptoms of depression wrong, you are not going to be able to finish that book.

Or it could be something that is common knowledge… Like the way everyone knows that if you are in LA there is NO WAY you are walking to get where you need to go. It is a car city. But if you live in New York City, you probably aren’t going to drive unless it’s an emergency or you are fairly wealthy. Everyone takes the subway or cabs. Okay, MAYBE you have a car if you live really far out in the boroughs or Jersey, but you probably don’t drive it into the city. Parking is expensive, and there are tolls.

Or maybe it’s something that is missing, that thing you’re expecting that just isn’t there. If I am reading a book about a particular topic or time period, but the author completely leaves out an important element, especially one that would have had an effect on the community or setting of the story, I might start to question their expertise – which is a problem since I assume they want me to believe the story they are telling me. For example, if you are reading a novel set in America during the Civil War, there must be some mention or discussion of slavery, and a character’s politics suddenly become very important in their interactions with strangers.

Or, for a more modern example of how forgetting something can throw a reader off, let’s say I’m reading a contemporary book about a teenage boy in high school, and one of the important plot points is that his girlfriend went to a party with some other guy, yet he knows nothing about this and is blindsided days later. Odds are that I’m going to be COMPLETELY distracted from his emotional trauma because I’m too busy wondering why none of his friends texted him when his girlfriend showed up at the party or why he didn’t see the pictures on social media. Because people today, especially teens, have cell phones that they carry everywhere and Instagram and Snapchat are things that exist. So if an author is trying to keep information away from their characters, they need to figure out why no one texted them or why they didn’t see it on social media.

Conversely, if the book is set in a boarding school in England in the 1800s and the main character is worried about rumors of something back home, it would take days or weeks for them to find out what really happened. They’d have to wait for a letter. Or at least a telegram or something. Probably. Wouldn’t they?

See why it is important for you as a writer to do your research?

And as you can see from the examples above, this rule is not just for historical settings. You might need to do research on places/groups/settings/societies/organizations/objects/habits/social issues/ (I could go on). If you don’t know the ins and outs of what you are talking about, anyone that is familiar with that element will be thrown out of your story if you get it wrong.

But you don’t have to be an expert on everything to be able to write about it. The amount of research you have to do depends on how important that element is to your book. If it is a one-off scene, maybe you watched a movie or something to see how pop culture portrays that particular issue. And that’s okay. But if the organization is a key part of the plot, you have to have done a lot more research on it, or it needs to be something that is completely made up, so you can set the rules yourself.  If we are talking about a historical setting that is going to affect every aspect of character, plot and believability, then you NEED to know what you are talking about and be able prove it to the reader through authentic details and reactions.

Readers will forgive mistakes in a one-off scene (although you WILL be told about them, and they WILL be listed online), but the things that are core to your story need to be researched, because if you get them wrong, your entire story could fall apart and you’ll lose your readers.

Author spotlight

Holly West

Senior Editor at Swoon Reads and Feiwel & Friends. Giant geek. Dedicated fangirl. Half-Elven Rogue Cleric. Also answers to That-Girl-Who-Reads-A-Lot.

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