Getting the research details right

'Double crossing' cover picToday, I’m pleased to welcome author Meg Mims, who offers some great advice to all authors on the subject of researching your novel.

Reviews for my first book, Double Crossing, have touched on page-turning chapter endings, rich settings and historical details. Writers might ask how they can find an easy way to do all that in their own books. I have good news and bad news. First the bad—great chapter endings take hard work in the revision process. And the good news? Research is fun.

Some writers might argue with me over that, but give me a stack of books or photo-studded websites to trawl, and I’m there with bells on! I love research. More than writing? No, but I can’t explain that wonderful “Aha!” feeling when I stumble over a really great detail I can use for my books. Call me crazy. Call me an old-fashioned library hound. But I can usually make a call on spotting a research detail problem in a book—from a modern phrase to an inaccurate setting or the wrong costume for a character. Why? Because I made those mistakes too.

And learned from them. That’s the key, to know better and take the time to do the hard work rather than take the easy way out.

Long ago, I entered a contest with the first twenty or so pages of a novel I planned to write. Lucky for me, well-known author Cheryl St. John judged my entry and pointed out very kindly that I hadn’t researched historic Omaha for the time period. How did she know? She lives there, and has extensive knowledge of that history. I scrambled to take her advice and was amazed at how lazy I’d been, making up things when I had plenty of sources that told me otherwise. And that early start eventually became part of Double Crossing! I’m still grateful to Cheryl for her timely tips. And after selling my carefully researched novel, I asked several other published author friends for some nice “blurb” to help promote it.

One mentioned a tiny detail about using photographs in newspapers. “Didn’t that start in 1872, not 1869?” she asked me. Red-faced, I realized that TINY detail could have undermined all the hard work I’d done in researching other details. She was right—such a small thing, and I’m grateful to her for pointing that out also. I prefer accuracy in books I read, and while few people might have noticed, I feel much better in having my own work be as accurate as possible. To me, it enriches the experience for the reader. I take pride in hearing “I feel like I was right there with Lily on the train, seeing everything!”

A few tips I can give you about research are: ALWAYS try to verify your source—if you find that in more than one place, then it’s bound to be accurate. Key word is try, because sometimes you won’t find more than one. ALWAYS go beyond Wikipedia to find actual historical books on costumes, places, history, etc. My daughter has often told me that she knows people who “fiddle” with Wikipedia and put inaccurate stuff on there. And last, ALWAYS rely on critique partners, friends, family, contest judges, whoever, to catch mistakes. Never assume you are right unless you are certain some detail is set-in-stone accurate. They might be wrong. But chances are good that if more than one person questions something, then so will a reader.

And the key is to keep your readers hooked and returning for more of your hard work. So take your time and produce quality. The devil is in the details, after all.

Picture of Meg MimsAbout the author

Meg Mims is an author, artist and amateur photographer. She writes historical mysteries and romantic suspense, and is a staff writer for RE/MAX Platinum in Michigan and for Lake Effect Living, a West Coast of Michigan tourist on-line magazine. Meg had an article about a lighthouse keeper published this past summer in The Chronicle, the Historical Society of Michigan magazine. Meg’s first novel, Double Crossing was also published this summer by Astraea Press.

DOUBLE CROSSING   — Book Website Link   MEG MIMS  — Author Website Link (I hope to consolidate these together soon)
Astraea Press, Amazon, B&N    — BUY Links

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About Greta van der Rol

I'm an author of fast-paced, action-adventure novels, mainly space opera - although I've been known to write in other genres. I live not far from the coast in Queensland, Australia and enjoy photography and cooking when I'm not bent over the computer. I have a degree in history and a background in building information systems, both of which go a long way toward helping me in my writing endeavours.

Posted on 1 November 2011, in Research and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. Fantastic post! I find myself double guessing everything I write when it comes to history 🙂 Good thing I love the library!

    Thanks for sharing.

    Melinda

  2. Great post. I must admit I get confused about real history and what readers have come to expect in a historical novel.

    cheers
    Louise

    • Thanks for the comments, ladies. Personally, I think it’s cut and dried. If you label it historical fiction it must be trie to the facts, the period and the people. If not, at best it’s alternative history (steampunk) or it’s fantasy.

  3. Excellent thoughts! Research is just as critical when it comes to writing modern fiction as well. The most unexpected people will turn up proving you wrong if you don;t.

  4. Thanks to the amount and depth of your research, I, the reader, get a history lesson in the most enjoyable of environments, therefore the details stay with me. Thank you.

  5. Yes, take it from a research hound — and a reader — that blatant inaccuracies make me throw the book aside. (cough, Philippa Gregory) … BUT you can also overload with research. The trick is to find a nice balance. Not easy!! You want readers to learn, but don’t smother them!! LOL… I find using the character’s POV as a “filter” helps a lot. If they’re in a new place, they would notice stuff. If it’s the usual breakfast table, not so much unless it’s burned toast or undercooked bacon. ;-D

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