Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Do fiction writers need to do research?

One question I am always asked is, “What kind of research do you do for your books?” Doing research is one of my favorite parts of writing a novel, because I am an information junkie by nature. Unfortunately, it’s easy for me to get carried away, and I have to rein myself in.

Two of my favorite authors, Beverly Jenkins and Eric Jerome Dickey, include such detail in their books; it’s obvious they’ve put in time to do extensive research. This is one of the reasons I enjoy their writing so much. Ms. Jenkins even treats her readers to the sources of her study of African-American history in the back of each of her historical romances. Mr. Dickey is better than Google Earth when it comes to taking the reader on a tour of the cities featured in his contemporary mainstream novels. When I finish reading his books, I feel as if I’ve actually been to the location. In one of his stories, he gave such a vivid and hilarious description of an Atlanta J.R. Crickets restaurant so well, I knew without question he’d been sitting in a corner watching the crowd as he threw down on some hot wings during one of his visits here.

I would love to tell you that I fly to the setting locations of my books and spend a week there soaking up the local sights, sounds and flavors, but I’d be lying. Often I wonder whether the research I’ve done is enough or too much, but comments from readers on Amazon or B&N like the ones below reassure me:

Reader Kathleen said this about Hot Fun in the Summertime: As a born and bred Jersey girl, the description of this book got my attention when I saw that the story was about the Jersey shore. This is the first book that I read of Ms. Brown's, and I absolutely loved it! As a Jersey native, Ms. Brown's accurate description of various Jersey shore towns and attractions was spot on, I could close my eyes and visualize everything that she described.”

Reader Tia shared: “I just finished reading Hot Fun and was very proud of how well written the book was and how the author gave such a vivid description of my home state, NJ and the beauty of our shore. I felt connected to the characters and scenery.”

Reader BrownBerri commented on Have You Seen Her?:I'm from Philly, have been to Warmdaddy's, and having gone to Santa Barbara when I was in LA recently, I literally know most of the places you mention so I'm getting really good visuals.”

The settings of Have You Seen Her? are Philadelphia, PA, Atlantic City, NJ and Santa Barbara, CA. I was born and raised in Jersey, and spent many days in Atlantic City as a child and also in the 80’s and 90’s after AC became the casino capital of the east coast. Also, I used to date a guy who lived in South Philly, and I hung out there a lot. What I needed to know was how these cities have changed since I’d visited there last. Where a victim of domestic abuse might go for help, and what kind of counseling she might receive was another subject on which I needed details. California divorce law and Trump properties in Atlantic City needed to be researched as well.
 
The setting research is always fun to do, but I really love getting into the details of different subjects. For instance, in Hot Fun in the Summertime, I had to find out about method acting and Trump properties in Atlantic City.

For Hollywood Swinging, I read about movie production, California anti-stalking laws and celebrity fashion stylists.

I Can’t Get Next to You took a lot of research, but it was the most interesting of all my books. Since I’ve never been in a strip club in my life, I did e-mail interviews with a few Atlanta men who have patronized the clubs and also one woman that currently tends bar at a local strip club here. The lawsuit in the book was based on the infamous Duke rape case. I used the exact details from the case, including actual transcripts of conversations with the accused athletes only I reversed the race of the stripper and the players.

Finally, Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing is set in the Hamptons, Long Island, New York. Delving into the lifestyles, homes and habits of the residents of that exclusive enclave was fascinating.

(This is a house in the Hamptons, not a hotel!)

The information I discovered about Riker’s Island prison was an eye opener.

Rikers Island3 New York Rikers Island

The Hilton resort on the island of Bali gave me an extreme case of wanderlust.
    

Doing your research as a fiction writer gives your books the detail they need to be believable. Just because the story is made up doesn't mean you can make up the details if you're writing about real places and things.

In addition to Google and Google Earth, one of my favorite sites for location research is www.citi-data.com. I absolutely love reading real people’s comments about their city/neighborhood.
 
Today, I am getting ready to begin a new story, and I’m trying to decide on a setting. I’ve already featured New Jersey, Atlanta and Los Angeles. I’ll let you know what I decide …

           

14 comments:

Glenn Starkey said...

Chicki -- Good blog. If an author were to ever tell me they did little to no research for their books, I would ask them for a copy to use as a door stop -- because that would be about all it is useful for. I love research, especially finding those little tidbits of information I can use to plug into my writings. My readers continuously comment on the authenticity they find in the stories. Looking forward to more interesting blogs from you in the future... Best wishes -- Glenn

Michelle Sutton said...

Nice pics. I think it's a balance of both. I don't have to get molested by my father to write about a character who does (thank God this never happened) so in that respect I say no, research is not needed. But I think it other cases it is or you sound like you don't know what you are talking about. Make sense?

Jae De Wylde said...

Hi Chicki!

Great blog. I agree totally that you need to be in the place in your mind to write effectively about it. I was born and raised in London and moved to Rutland and to the south of Spain. Guess where The Thinking Tank is set! There are always going to be readers who really do live in these places (we hope!) so we want them lapping up the storyline, not worrying about details that we've got wrong. Research is so important.
Best wishes, Jae www.jaedewylde.com
Author, The Thinking Tank (Summertime Publishing)

Chicki said...

Thanks for stopping by, Glenn. I've actually had writers tell me, "I don't have to research anything, because I'm making up the story." The only time I think that applies if when an author writes fantasy and nothing in the book is based on fact.

Hi, Michelle! Great to see you here. I think even in those cases, a little research is necessary. For instance, what kind of emotional reactions manifest in a young girl that's been molested? In Have You Seen Her? my character is an abused wife. I wanted to know how the abuse would affect her even after she escaped from him. It was enlightening.

Chicki said...

Glad you visited, Jae! You're so right, especially when it comes to contemporary fiction. An author can write generically and simply say, "He got onto the highway and drove to the beach," but if the story is set in New Jersey, it's adds a little more to say, "He merged into the traffic creeping south toward the shore on the Parkway. The drive way stop and go all the way back to Exit 136." Readers that know the area will appreciate that a backup all the way to Exit 136 is an incredible nightmare! And if I said, "He got on Route 22 West and headed to the beach," they would know that's impossible.

Brandy LeRue said...

This is a really good topic. As an Author I do a lot of detailed research. I mean down to the kind of sheets a hotel use. I get on the phone and I call, I research on the internet I have went as far as visiting a place before I add it to my story. I don't want my readers to be into one of my stories and get to a certain part and get thrown off because the setting doesn't seem realistic.

Martha A. said...

I read a book where the author must have not done research. It was set in a small town that I grew up in and while I rarely give poor reviews, this one earned one. The author placed the couple living in a place where people cannot live, they had them selling furniture where really there is a tiny gas station and it was a large marketplace in the book. The train comes into the town, not the bus and they took the bus to the town. The locals were laughing hysterically over it! I understand creating things that are not there, but don't name them similar names. Many people would not notice, but they lost many readers that would have read the book simply because of where it was placed.

Sharon Cunningham Cooper said...

Hmm...I can't imagine writing much of anything (even some of my blogs) without doing some form of research...on something. Lol.

Great blog, Chicki!

Chicki said...

Wow, Brandy! You really go deep. LOL! It's those details that make a story richer though.

Martha, that's pitiful, and it's the sign of a lazy author. We don't know who is going to read our books, and if you write about a real place, it just stands to reason that people who live (or used to live there) might be interested in reading it.

You're a detail-oriented person, Sharon, just like me. If I'm going to do something, I'm not doing it halfway. :)

Sandy Nachlinger said...

I enjoyed your blog post about research. I felt like I'd been on a visit to the Jersey shore after reading Hot Fun in the Summertime. Yes, research takes time but it's so worthwhile, especially in creating a believable setting. The problem for me is that I get fascinated by what I'm learning and I get sucked into it--when I should be writing.
By the way, your comment on the Facebook page for post-chicklit book group led me here.

Chicki said...

Glad you paid me a visit here, Sandy! I only post twice a week, but I hope you'll come back again. :)

Zee Monodee said...

I'm a compulsive researcher too. I use a lot of European settings in my romantic suspense series, and to me it is imperative to get it absolutely, down to the last detail, right! I want locals to recognize their place, and I want people to read my books also as armchair travelling.
Same for a profession - I'll research everything about it, esp that which is pertinent to the scene and its details, so I know I got it right. Like, in a recent ms I wrote, the hero is a paramedic and he's been called on the scene of an accident, where he ends up meeting the heroine. I contacted London paramedics and had them run me through protocol and procedure step by step, even had a few read over the finished scene, so I was sure I got it right.

I feel we as authors owe our readers such accuracy. A lot of things I've learned come from reading fiction - now to think they might not be accurate... *shudder*

Miss Crystal said...

You do a great job on the details in your books, Zee! I always learn something I didn't know before when I read them.

Zee Monodee said...

Thanks, girl! :)