I was recently chatting with a fellow thriller writer who admitted he did hardly any research for his books — a fact that he rarely discussed with readers. (“That’s not what they want to hear,” he told me.)
I, however, tell readers all the time that I’m not really a research-hound when it comes to my novels. Maybe it’s because I’m a trained journalist and my day job is spent worrying about the facts, and being accurate, and getting it right, that when I write fiction I just want to let my mind wander into new and interesting places. I mean, that IS the fun of novel-writing, isn’t it?
That is not to say, however, that I DON’T do research. I do. I actually do CONSTANT research, but in very small doses. If I’m writing a scene about, say, Bryant Park in Manhattan, I’ll scoot over to the Bryant Park website to do a quick read on the latest news, and then continue on with my scene. If I decide that my character, Bob, is going to buy a Brooks Brothers suit, I’ll go to the Brooks Brothers website to look at the kinds of suits they’ve got. Hey, in May 2010, I even traveled to Albany, New York, to get a feel for the city, since it is the primary setting for Baby Grand. It’s not that I’m averse to research, but I’m not a stickler for it. I look at novel-writing as playtime, where I can mix fact and fiction.
In my opinion, novels simply need to be believable. As long as readers think that, sure, this could happen, I’m happy. (A recent blog post on Writer Unboxed discussed how thinking too much about the Reality Police will actually derail your writing. Sometimes writers get too caught up these tiny details of whether or not something is true, whether or not they’ll receive hate mail from readers about how they screwed something up, that they can’t manage to write a word.)
Most of the time I go by my own reality compass. Do I think this is credible? real? believable enough for readers to keep reading? I’m sure I don’t get EVERYTHING right, but I’m okay with that as long as I TRY to.
Recently, at a book club appearance, the discussion turned to a scene in Baby Grand where a visitor who has clearly had a few drinks goes to see a death row inmate. One of the ladies in the group said, “There’s no way that guy would be allowed to go in there drunk.”
I found this comment interesting. Really, I wondered. That’s something I hadn’t even thought about or else I probably would have done some quick research on it. Why would they turn this guy away? Sure, he was glassy-eyed, and perhaps was tipsy, but it never occurred to me that the prison wouldn’t let him in. I mean, he was there to visit a family member.
So another book club member decided to text one of her friends who works at a prison to find out the truth. And the truth was…I was right. They certainly would let him in.
“Oh,” the woman who made the comment said, and then the discussion turned to another topic.
But she had been so SURE I was wrong. Why? She was going by her own reality compass, which goes to show that even if everything in your novel IS accurate, there will still be readers who think you’re wrong.
So all we can do in the end — as I tell my kids — is the best we can.