Research: How Much is Enough?

 

by Gayle Bartos-Pool

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Shakespeare didn’t have access to the Internet to look up Who’s Who? Back when he wrote about the Archbishop of Canterbury, Mark Antony, Julius Caesar, or the hundreds of other historical characters who populate his plays. There were a few books available that would give him some background information and the schools in the Stratford area where he grew up had a curriculum that taught a lot about the Greeks, Romans, and what History was known at the time. What else would they be teaching? Nuclear fission? Some “scholars” (I use quotation marks because I question their credentials.) have tried to say The Bard didn’t actually write all his work because he wasn’t “formally educated” and how dare a mere peasant do such a good job? Well, it looks like he did and did it beautifully.

 

My point is, writers need to research their work just like Shakespeare must have done at least enough to capture an era or a practice or an historical character who might appear in their story. And then there are locations that the writer might never have actually visited like Edgar Rice Burroughs’s A Princess of Mars or police procedures like Along Came a Spider by James Patterson unless they were a cop or knew a cop themselves or knew how to break into a house unless they were a burglar or knew one or… You get my drift.

 

So what does a writer today do? Research. There is a ton of it already done out there whether you go to the library or use the Internet or talk to people who do some of this stuff for a living or who have experienced something about which you are writing. Dick Francis gave his characters great jobs before the mystery interfered with their daily lives. Everything from jockeys to photographers to wine merchants. By the time the mystery was solved the reader knew some interesting things about all kinds of occupations. And it was always just enough. He never weighed down his prose with a seminar on “existential basket weaving.” Of course there is Joseph Wambaugh who served fourteen years with the Los Angeles Police Department and who then went on to write over a dozen terrific novels about the police.

 

Let me give you a “for instance” of learning something from a great source. When I was first writing the Johnny Casino books I wanted him to have a rather dubious background. I wanted his father to be in the Mob back in New Jersey. Johnny would grow up in that atmosphere. He would actually work for the Mob until he realized this wasn’t who he was (In more ways than one as it turned out.) He wanted something else out of life.

 

This was all well and good. Johnny would change his name, eventually move to California, and become a private detective after nearly screwing up there, but then he realized: that other life wasn’t him. But I had a problem… or two. I didn’t know if that character arc was feasible. Once in the Mob, always in the Mob. Isn’t that the case? “The only way outta da Mob is in a pine box.” (I made up that quote, but you get my point.) Then I went to a gun store to, well, buy a gun, and I met the owner: Chris Biller. If this wasn’t a sign, I don’t know what was.

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Chris had been an L.A. cop for many years. When he retired he opened Greta’s Guns in Simi Valley, California. Chris had been a good cop. He didn’t much care for those guys in the ranks who got chummy with celebrities and who forgot they were still wearing the badge. He had some good stories. But he had one more story that made all the difference in his life (and Johnny’s and mine as well.) His father had been in the Greek Mafia. Chris grew up much like my Johnny Casino character, not that Chris was a hood, but he knew he wasn’t Mafia material. He wanted a different life and he got one. Just seeing the type of man Chris was let me know Johnny would be that type of a guy, too. See what a little research and chance meetings can do.

Something else Chris mentioned was a book I should read about the Mafia called Five Families by Selwyn Raab (copyright 2005). I read the chapters up until the point Johnny would no longer be in the Mob and it gave me great insights into that life. The book and Mr. Biller created a background for both Johnny and his father.

 

Research, no matter if it’s through books, TV shows, movies, personal contact or even jobs the writer might have had to enhance their stories, makes “the read” feel real. After all, we are creating a world within our pages. As for me, I used my dad’s time in the Air Force and the spy planes he dealt with to play a part in my spy trilogy. Then there was my stint as a private detective that helped with my three detective series. But most of all, it was the many, many people I spoke to about the jobs they did and the things they know that enhanced my stories. After all… we can’t know everything. And Research broadens our horizons and helps us create those new worlds.

 

The other problem writers have when researching their subject matter is knowing when to stop writing about what you learned. Too much is just that – Too Much. Don’t bore your reader with so many details you distract from the story. As I tell the students in my writing classes, always ask yourself: Does it advance the story? Does it enhance the story? Is it redundant?  Write on!

 

Author: gbpool

A former private detective and once a reporter for a small weekly newspaper, Gayle Bartos-Pool (writing as G.B. Pool) writes three detective series: the Gin Caulfield P.I. series (Media Justice, Hedge Bet & Damning Evidence), The Johnny Casino Casebook Series, and the Chance McCoy detective series. She also penned a series of spy novels, The SPYGAME Trilogy: The Odd Man, Dry Bones, and Star Power. She has a collection of short stories in From Light To DARK, as well as novels: Eddie Buick’s Last Case, Enchanted: The Ring, The Rose, and The Rapier, The Santa Claus Singer, and three delightful holiday storied, Bearnard’s Christmas, The Santa Claus Machine, and Every Castle Needs a Dragon. Also published: CAVERNS, Only in Hollywood, and Closer. She is the former Speakers Bureau Director for Sisters in Crime/Los Angeles and also a member of Mystery Writers of America and The Woman’s Club of Hollywood. She teaches writing classes: “Anatomy of a Short Story,” (The Anatomy of a Short Story Workbook and So You Want to be a Writer are available.) “How To Write Convincing Dialogue” and “Writing a Killer Opening Line” in sunny Southern California. Website: www.gbpool.com.

14 thoughts on “Research: How Much is Enough?”

  1. Gayle, thank you for this article, it needed writing and you are the perfect author to do so. Love the Shakespeare bits. I believe that writers need to have a passion for research almost as much as for writing. It is exciting to discover material we can use, especially when it exactly fits our needs, providing a Hallelujah! moment.. In fact, I am thinking of thanking Wikipedia, among others, in the Acknowledgements page of my current WIP. The Internet is saving us so many dollars in gasoline by allowing us to sit home to do our research and it is free, to boot!
    jill

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Jill, We do have access to vast amounts of material now and many of those sources are well-researched themselves so we can assume the info is fairly accurate. I turn to the Internet so often and it has helped me pin down an idea that I might have for a story. Yea, research works.

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    1. Thanks for dropping by Sharon and re-posting this on your site. Writers do learn from each other. I have learned so much just from my fellow writers on our own blog. Your site has lots of info as well.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Your post eloquently lays out the importance of research in any writing, something we all can appreciate. The bit about “too much” struck a chord. One of the challenges I and other writers face is presenting our research within the context of the story with the understanding that, although the characters may be experts in the subject, the reader isn’t. Taking dry, scholarly data and transforming it to flow effortlessly takes practice and skill, something Shakespeare mastered.

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  3. Oh, yes, research is vital to writers. I started out writing, and doing research, before there was much internet help, and learned to do a lot in person and at libraries. Now, I do take advantage of what’s online too. I don’t think there can be too much research, but I agree it can be overused in writing. Thanks for a good and helpful post, Gayle!

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    1. I have read and put down a few books with too much info. That’s how we learn what not to do. I guess that’s research, too.

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  4. Gayle, as Jill said, this needed to be said. We are so fortunate today to have the world-wide internet access to documents – and newly-scanned Census reports and other historic information. I wrote my first Lottie Topaz novel because of research I had done for my Hollywood Then and Now book. I saw the actual ledgers of the LAPD from the early 1900s. That sparked an idea for a mystery… But, it’s easy for me to get so engrossed in research that I use up valuable time that should be spent on writing! Great post!

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  5. Another great post, Gayle, from one who knows how its done and is willing to share that knowledge. I love the story of Chris and the “coincidence.” of meeting him just when needed. And thanks for sticking up for old Shakespeare!

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  6. Sorry I’m late to the party, but now that I’m here, another GREAT post, Gayle about research. I’m thinking it’s another one of those writing balancing act, where you need to do enough, or “lived” the particular life enough so that the world you’re creating is a place your reader can identify with, and make real in their minds. And that thought has helped me today with an idea for my current WIP. I always learn something, or go down a writing thought path from your posts. Thank you soooooo much. As you are encouraging us, I off to “write on!”

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  7. Great post, Gayle. People who have helped me—-co-workers and former classmates. Their careers and interests can be very helpful and even generate ideas. A co-worker assured me she was an “expert” on redneck culture! Turns out she was, gave me several helpful suggestions, told me the best places to conduct my research, and vetted a scene I wrote set in a redneck bar. A guy I went to high school with became a firearms instructor and sent me pages and pages of detail about guns. I haven’t used podcasts, but understand that they’re wonderful research sources.

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