I finished my first suspense novel last May. Although the actual writing took most of my time, I spent a significant amount of time researching. Research helps us make fiction believable. Unless you’re writing Sci-Fi, you have to make it believable. But even with Sci-Fi there are rules.
You don’t want people to say, “That could never happen.” For instance, a police officer in Detroit in 2011 will not hop into her flying car after her suspect shot her with a laser blaster. She’s probably going to jump into her Dodge Charger after being shot with a Glock. Research would’ve told you that and readers know. Believe me, they know.
The best way to research is to actually experience what you’re describing. For example, it’s much more believable if you’re describing swimming with clothes and shoes on if you’ve actually experienced it. How do you research this? Jump into a pool wearing your clothes and shoes, then write about it. Be sure someone is with you so you don’t drown. That experiment only works if you live to write about it. There are some limits to this method. You wouldn’t want to provoke a gang leader just so you could describe how it feels to be chased with bullets flying at your head. Some things should be made up.
Another way to research is through the Internet. It’s a little safer and you’re less likely to drown. I research using the Internet all the time. In my novel, I was trying to describe a setting in Mexico along the Sea of Cortez. I’ve never been to the coast of Mexico so I surfed over to Google Earth. I zoomed in to an uncomfortably close view, surveyed the scenery, found a tiny town, and voila! There was my setting. I could see everything I needed to hide a criminal right there from my laptop.
There was one scene in my novel where I was describing how to get from a house to a hotel in North Carolina. I didn’t have a particular house in mind but did have a general neighborhood. Again, I used Google Earth and gave exact directions from the neighborhood to the hotel; landmarks and all. If someone wanted to follow them, they could.
Why is this important? Someday, someone will read your book who has been to the place you’re describing and they’ll either say, “She’s right…there is a mural on that wall” or they’ll say, “What’s she talking about? That’s not right.”
I’m not saying that everything in your book has to be real. This is fiction after all. I’m just saying that the more realistic your fiction is, the better it will be. A good word to remember is “Plausible.” Encarta’s definition is “believable and appearing likely to be true, usually in the absence of proof.” Don’t stray far from the plausible when writing fiction. Most people won’t go to the places you’re describing, but they need to think that they could. Happy Writing!