Thursday, October 9, 2014

Research and Inspiration in the Information Age

RHYS BOWEN:  Since I write historical fiction I have to do a lot of research. It is important to get everything right. I don't know about you, but if I find one glaring error, that's the last I read of that book. Like a train coming into the wrong station in London, or calling the king "Your Highness."  yes, I've read both.
I am always fascinated with the way other writers do their research. I can remember driving to the library and asking for help from the reference desk. So I was interested to see that Vincent O'Neil's experiences mirrored my own.  We're happy to welcome him to Jungle Red Writers today.... take it away Vinnie!

When I first started writing, it was on a manual typewriter. I used the card catalog and the microfiche reader at the library to do research, in a process that was time-consuming and often ineffective. If I needed inspiration for setting the mood in a story, I would usually read the works of other authors who had written about a place or situation similar to the one I hoped to depict.

I can’t say I miss the card catalog and the microfiche reader very much; after all, it took some leg work to go and find the right book or journal, and the search often turned up items that didn’t match their descriptions. As for setting the mood by reading the writing of others, even when that worked it felt more like imitation than inspiration.

That’s why I much prefer the resources we have now. In addition to easy access and multiple media, the inspiration I’ve received from photos, videos, and personal blogs has helped me to mentally experience places I’ve never been and things I’ve never done. While acknowledging the difficulties of sorting through the incredible amount of information available to us now, and recognizing that some of it is inaccurate, I must say that the tools of the information age have really helped my writing and even my development as a writer.

When I’m approaching a topic about which I know nothing, I usually try to find one of the “Idiot’s Guides” because they’re usually such excellent sources of fundamental information. For example, when I started researching my theater-themed murder mystery Death Troupe, I began with a copy of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Amateur Theatricals. I slowly worked my way up to reading the memoirs of some famous directors, but the nuts-and-bolts understanding of the stage that I got from that particular Idiot’s Guide was invaluable.

Death Troupe is set in the Adirondack region during the wintertime and, while I had visited the area years before, my personal knowledge of that part of the world was dated. I wanted to set the story in a small town, but I didn’t know much about the organization of such a place, beginning with what kind of local businesses they might have. Thanks to the Internet, I could view the entire region as either a map or a very detailed satellite photograph. That helped me to find a few towns and villages that resembled the place I wanted to invent, and then by looking up the webpages for those towns and villages I easily got an idea of common businesses and industries.

Photographs on those websites were also very helpful, both for suggesting exciting locations such as an old fire tower on a tall hill and for stirring up ideas regarding the general atmosphere of the town that would be in my book. Later on I ran into difficulty describing a cross-country skiing lesson, even though I had once been pretty good at that sport. It was important to get the sequence of actions right, describing how weight shifts from ski to ski and the way the poles are used for balance. I’d forgotten exactly how that all worked, and yet a YouTube video of basic cross-country skiing techniques brought me back up to speed in no time.

I’ve always believed that research can lead to great inspirations, and just getting back in touch with that part of the world reminded me of impressions I’d had years earlier while also suggesting new ways of looking at the locale. From videos and still photographs to town websites and community newsletters, a wealth of information was literally at my fingertips.

When I was writing my horror novel Interlands, I decided to include a haunted hayride. The already-frightening experience of rolling past scary scenes, complete with gory special effects and live actors in disturbing costumes, was to be made even creepier by supernatural elements intruding on the main character’s perceptions. The problem was that I had never been on one of those hayrides. Once again YouTube videos came to the rescue, not only showing real haunted hayride attractions as they played out, but also describing some of the behind-the-scenes work that helps to make the experience so unsettling. Just by watching those videos, I was able to get a feel for at least part of the mood I wanted to create. I also got some great ideas for spooky stations along the route of the hayride and the ways they could be made even more terrifying by the involvement of supernatural influences.

None of these techniques is meant to take the place of actually visiting or experiencing the locations and activities we seek to describe. However, they certainly helped me in that they augmented what I already knew (or thought I knew) and often provided me with fresh ideas.

In closing, I’d like to repeat that some of the information found on the Internet is not accurate, and so it’s important to check anything we decide to present as being realistic or factual. But for conducting background research, gaining inspiration, and just helping to generate a mood similar to the one we hope to create, I’ll take the technology available to us now over the microfiche reader any day.

Vincent H. O’Neil is the Malice Award-winning author of the Frank Cole mystery series, the theater-themed mystery Death Troupe, and the horror novel Interlands. His military science fiction novel Glory Main (written as Henry V. O’Neil) was published by HarperVoyager in July and the sequel, Orphan Brigade, is set for release in January, 2015. Please visit his website www.vincenthoneil for reviews, sample chapters, and important links. 

RHYS: So Reds--what's the most interesting or unusual piece of research you have done?  I remember riding a train up a Welsh mountain, looking out of the window for the best place to push someone to their death. When I found the perfect place, and shared this info with my husband, I noticed the train car had gone very quiet and people had moved as far away as possible!

And readers--has there been one glaring error that has made you stop reading a book?


  1. I remember the days of card catalogues . . . and signing the card to check out the book . . . and all those complicated searches through the stacks to find the books to find the information. And, yes, it's so much easier now, but I still feel a certain nostalgia for the card catalogue . . . .

    I seldom stop reading a book once I've started it, even if there is a glaring research-type error. But I have set books aside [generally finishing them much later] when the characters and the writing simply didn't draw me into the story . . . .

  2. Vincent, Welcome! A few years ago I ran across Murder in Exile at the library, read it, LOVED it. I wanted to read more books by you but I stupidly forgot to write down your name; I could only remember that your first name was Vincent (easy to remember - it's the name of one of my brothers-in-law!)

    Now that I have your full name, the rest of your books are going on my TBR list.

    I loved the trip down memory lane this morning. I do miss the old card catalogues, but I was never a fan of microfiche.

    If an author writes about a real place and states up front that some locations within that city or town may have been changed for the sake of the story, I have no trouble if a building or street is on a different side of town. If the place is a real one, and mistakes are made as to location with no disclaimer, I find it annoying. A historical novel I read a few years ago mentioned something as "fact" that did not actually happen until around fifty years later. I have not returned to that author's books, although I may give them another try. Everybody makes mistakes, after all.

  3. My research isn't all that exciting. I use the Internet, obviously, and often make up my own places so that I have the freedom to do what I want.

    I've never stopped reading a book because of an historical error. For me, if the story is solid, I'll keep going. We're all human, after all, and mistakes are made.

    But I commiserate with you on how you can kill people or dump bodies. It's a conversation I engage with often with my husband...fortunately he's used to those kinds of questions now. But other people? Yeah, they think it's creepy. :)

  4. Hey gang! Glad you liked the post.

    I spent many happy hours in the town library growing up, and I have fond memories of the card catalog and even the microfiche reader.

    Speaking of libraries, here's a fun item from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Private Investigation: When an investigator is in an unfamiliar locale and wants to identify reliable sources of public information, the author of the guide suggested consulting the Reference Librarian at the city or town library.

  5. 49400
    Hey, Vincent! So happy to see you here. I remember fiche and card catalogues. Years ago we bought a cache of oak card catalogue drawers and my husband keeps his postcard collection in it. When I have particularly complex research to undertake, I appropriate one to store my 3x5 cards. Research for me needs to be PHYSICAL. Printed out.

    Yes, flawed research (or making it up) spoils it for me.

    I once read a novel that described Cambridge MA. The character looks out the window of her hotel: “Outside, sloping up from the muddy river, spread the curiously European village of Cambridge, Massachusetts.” Muddy river? Village? Cambridge??? Then the character taxies up Memorial Drive: “…even a clean hint of coming frost in the air couldn’t entirely subdue the reeking diesel and industrial smells.” Now it sounds like southeast Jersey.

  6. If I notice a research error, I might roll my eyes, but most of the time it only really bugs me that if there are other issues with the book.

    Then again, there are so many things I don't know that I miss most of them anyway.

    I remember the card catalog and microfilm days, too. I enjoyed doing research then for school, but it is certainly faster now.

  7. "And readers--has there been one glaring error that has made you stop reading a book?"

    I was starting to say "no" because I read a lot of historical mysteries where research is so vital. But I have to say "yes" to anything contemporary set in Montana. They always get it wrong.
    I swear they think we don't live in the same century -- riding horses, hick attitude, etc. Drives me nuts.

    Recently, there was a debut novel set in my home town and within the first couple pages there was so much wrong (ex.: She mentioned a river being here and I had to look up what the heck she was talking about -- it was on the other side of the state by a few hundred miles.) I couldn't even finish the sample. And the author claimed to have grown up in the area.

  8. I don't think I've stopped reading a book, but if a real anachronism or error jumps out at me, I have trouble taking the rest of the book seriously. Several years ago I read a novel by a popular young writer that had a scene with people on a train on D-Day. And they were hearing radio reports of the D-Day invasion because someone had a transistor radio! And transistors were not invented for several years after World War II. I couldn't figure out why her editor didn't catch it. I just finished another one that mentions typewriter correction fluid in 1941, which as far as I can tell is also not right.

  9. I often find shoddy research goes with shoddy writing. If you can't take the time to get the research down, then will that same person take the time to polish, edit, rewrite, for however many drafts it takes to make the book the best it can be?

    On the other hand, there's a fine balance between research and creating fiction. As Deb Romano points out, if the author states that they've taken liberties with location, etc., for the sake of the story--that's fine with me. But if I want a travelogue, I'll browse the non-fiction section--so make sure the details are pertinent to the story.

  10. I am so picky about proper and accurate research that I have frequently stopped reading a book and refused to read anything further by a writer if I catch them in an obvious error. Putting a historical person in the wrong century or having them married to the wrong person, etc are errors that no historical novelist should ever make.

    An example of a truly excellent historical novelist who did her research about how people actually lived, what they wore, what they ate, what kinds of weapons they used, etc is Roberta Gellis. Her books were full of interesting information about those things and that just made the stories more interesting. Also, Dorothy Dunnett's Lymond Chronicles had the same sorts of features that just made them terrific reading.

    It's one thing if the author warns you ahead of time that they're moving a specific event a few years off to fit their story or that they're moving a river or a town to fit their story. But it's something else altogether if it's just obvious that they did not do their research and expect their readers to swallow it whole.

    I'll get off my hobbyhorse now. And, by the way, Rhys, your research is impeccable as far as I can tell. Georgie and Molly fit into their respective periods, wear the right clothes, use the right tools, etc. Susan too. The Maggie Hope books seem to be excellently researched. Thanks!

  11. Vincent, thank you for a fascinating look at Internet research. You made me realize just how much a person can glean from pictures and Youtube, as well as the regular text information. Of course, I still dream of writing a novel someday and set it in Scotland so that I can travel there, telling husband that it is necessary for the research. Hehehe! And, you so wisely advise that there is nothing better than actually visiting a place. May I quote you?

    I have to tell you, Vincent, that my next site to which I will go on the Internet this morning is Amazon to order Interlands. I mean, really, a haunted hayride? Who can resist that feature? Not me, especially close to my favorite time of year, Halloween. Of course, I plan to also put Death Troupe on my wish list and check out your other books. Jungle Reds is surely going to send me into bankruptcy one of these days between buying all the Reds' wonderful books and all the amazing guest authors' tales.

    Oh, I wanted to comment about the Idiot's guides, too. I have bought several of these books over the years to give me an overview of a subject and found them quite helpful. I do wish they would rename them The Curious Person's Guide, although I suppose we are all idiots about new subject matter.

    The only book I have stopped reading due to inaccuracies is a non-fiction one about the Princes in the Tower, and the inaccuracies are a matter of academic and historical dispute. I stand firmly on the side of Richard III's innocence in the death of the princes and feel he got a bad deal from history and especially Mr. Shakespeare, who was trying to please the Queen in his play and not record history.

  12. Hey, Vinny! SOrry to run in so late--I was on a plane!!

    My husband talks about this all the time--he sees lots of legal mistakes, both about the law and about procedures. He'll read me passages out loud, with much disdain. Gee, I guess you can't be accurate simply by watching Lw and Order! And personally, it's really reassuring to have in-house counsel, you know?

  13. SO many great comments!

    I forgot to mention that I own The Complete idiot's Guide to Understand Einstein.

    I've read it cover to cover, and I am not smart enough for that book.

  14. Research is one of my favorite parts of writing. I love that I write in the age of the Internet, but my favorite research materials are things like obscure old books or visiting a place to get the feel for it.

    I've been known to throw a book across the room, but now that I think about it, that's generally been because of an unbelievable action on the part of a character, not a research error (which results in an eye-roll).

  15. Hi, Vincent! Sorry I'm late.

    I was sad to see the card catalogues go, but it was interesting to play a part in the process at my school library where I had a student job of locating lost books. I was supposed to locate the book on the card and put it on the lost books shelf in the tech librarian's department. I then had to enter the book info into the library database, decide where it belonged and put the catalogue card someplace where it could be checked before destruction.

    I was very, very, very not good at the computer part but could find books that had been missing for over a hundred years. That saved my hungry student job. I was dismissed from the cataloging part and sent on the hunt for lost books—books in the catalogue but not check out and not found anywhere.

    Often I would find them hidden under stairs and other places where you wouldn't expect to find them. I knew that then-current students would sometimes hide books so that they would be available to them for study. I figured past generations might have done the same so found a lot of books with this in mind.

    I found one late 18th century book that had never been checked out or even read (the pages had not been separated). I read the bookplate, and it made me sad, because it was donated by a mother in memory of her son who had died—perhaps during the American Revolution I imagined.

    One book I found had last been checked out in 1895. I decided to check it out for good luck and the librarian looked at the stamp marks and signature said, "Oh, very nice. Good find." Then she barcoded it, did that electronic check thingy, and it was mine for a few weeks.

    So yes. I have a special fondness for card catalogs. But you can find books and what's in them and whatever else you need to know much more easily with computer cataloging. I'm afraid it doesn't stop students from hiding the books they need for their term papers, though.

    [First-years: go look under the staircases and on the floor under the bottom shelves nearby where the book you want belongs. If not there go to the floor above or below. Not there? Go to the section that seems opposite, although isn't and can't be opposite, to what you're looking for. American history? Look in English history. Start early. I mean right after you get the course syllabus.]

  16. Oh that's longer than I thought. Sorry.

  17. No need to be sorry at all -- what a marvelous set of stories!

    When I was in grad school I worked in the library, and I gained a huge appreciation for everything the librarians do for us.