June 27, 2013
The Importance of Research in Fiction Writing
This article first appeared on Anne J. Fotheringham’s site, Book Editor Plus.
Although fiction is a product of the imagination, if it’s set in the real world at least partially, there will be some real-life things you must get right. This means being accurate with your facts. In a contemporary story, if you’ve got a seasoned outdoorsman who drinks water directly from a still pool in a stream, you haven’t done your research.
Water can be contaminated with a variety of things risky to health and isn’t safe to drink without some kind of treatment, including filtration, chemical disinfection, or boiling. Boiling is best. If this isn’t possible in your story, you’ll get points for realism and accuracy if your character knows the dangers and does his best to mitigate them. If you don’t know your outdoor lore, readers who do will detect your gaffe and call you on it. (They may also quit reading or complain in a review.)
For instance, in DEATH PERCEPTION, my latest supernatural crime thriller, protagonist Kennet Singleton runs the crematory at a local funeral home. When I first got the idea about a young man who can discern the cause of death of those he cremates by toasting marshmallows over their ashes, I knew nothing about funeral homes or cremation.
One of the first things I did was conduct a general Internet search to acquaint myself with the processes of cremation and embalming. Then I went to visit a funeral home with a crematorium. A friend arranged for me to meet the funeral director, and I spent an hour there one afternoon learning about their process.
Being a technical writer, I took copious notes and made sketches. I even tape-recorded the session so I could go back to it if I later couldn’t make sense of my notes. Back home I typed up the document, making computer diagrams from my sketches, and ended up with a 15-page document that I later referred to when I wrote scenes in which cremation took place.
I also read a lot of books on the subject of death, funerary tradition and processes, and cremation. I still have a carton containing these titles:
- Purified by Fire: A History of Cremation in America by Stephen Prothero
- Cremation in America by Fred Rosen
- Corpses, Coffins, and Crypts: A History of Burial by Penny Colman
- Round-Trip to Deadsville: A Year in the Funeral Underground by Tim Matson
- What Happens When You Die: From Your Last Breath to the First Spadeful by Robert T. Hatch
- I Died Laughing: Funeral Education with a Light Touch by Lisa Carlson
- One Foot in the Grave: The Strange But True Adventures of a Cemetery Sexton by Chad Daybell
- Cemetery Stories: Haunted Graveyards, Embalming Secrets, and the Life of a Corpse After Death by Katherine Ramsland
- Death to Dust: What Happens to Dead Bodies? by Kenneth V. Iserson, MD
Some of these books were more useful than others, but I gleaned something from all of them. I used this knowledge to build a foundational structure based on facts about death, embalming, cremation, funeral homes, and cemeteries.
I likewise did research on personal care homes. And more on marijuana growing, poisons, prescription drugs, sexual fetishes, crime, guns, and police procedure. (Yes, all of these are in DEATH PERCEPTION.)
Did I get it all right? I suppose if an expert in any of these areas reads my book, she might find a flaw. But I performed due diligence and did my best to accurately ground my fiction in fact. Even much of the Spiritualism and Kennet’s psychic abilities are based on research and experience.
All this said, must you know everything about everything? No. You can’t. Other funeral directors may do things differently in their places of business, and that’s okay. But my facts are accurate according to how one funeral director operates his crematorium.
Although you can’t know everything, it pays to do your research in as many areas as possible. Then have knowledgeable beta readers check your work for accuracy. Sound research lends authority and realism to your writing, and these are what loyal readers enjoy.
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