July 30 – August 5: “Research, do you love it or hate it?”

This week ITW Members Dan Mayland, R. Thomas Riley, Andrew Kaplan, Cathy Scott, F.J. Lennon and C.E. Lawrence discuss their love (or not) of research. You won’t want to miss this!

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Cathy Scott‘s work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, New York Post, George magazine, Christian Science Monitor, Las Vegas Sun and Reuters. She blogs for Forbes and Publishers Marketplace and is known for her books THE KILLING OF TUPAC SHAKUR and THE MURDER OF BIGGIE SMALLS. She taught journalism at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas until she left her position following Hurricane Katrina to report on the largest animal rescue in U.S. history. Her most recent TV appearances include Investigation Discovery, VH1 and A&E.

Dan Mayland has been detained by soldiers in Soviet Czechoslovakia, trekked to remote monasteries in Bhutan and Nepal, explored mosques in Iran and Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan, and gone high-altitude mountaineering in Peru and Bolivia. His articles have appeared in the Iranian.com and his debut spy thriller, THE COLONEL’S MISTAKE, will be released by Thomas & Mercer this August.

R. Thomas Riley is the author of the short story collection THE MONSTER WITHIN IDEA (2009-2011) published by Hugo Nominated Apex Publications and re-released as a Kindle exclusive in 2011. IF GOD DOESN’T SHOW (co-written with John Grover) will be published by Permuted Press and Audible.com, July 2012. DIAPHANOUS (co-written with Roy C. Booth) is available now. THE DAY LUFBERRY WON IT ALL was adapted to short film by Frosty Moon Omnimedia in 2010.

Andrew Kaplan is the bestselling author of the Scorpion novels. A former journalist and war correspondent, he served in both the U.S. Army and the Israeli Army. His novel, DRAGONFIRE, was a Book of the Month Club main selection and his film writing career includes the James Bond classic, GOLDENEYE. Suspense Magazine declared: “[Kaplan] matches the best of Ludlum, and then surpasses it.” Kirkus called his work “ELECTRIFYING … a searing, ultimately satisfying entertainment” and David Morrell stated: “Andrew Kaplan represents a gold standard for thriller writing.”

C.E. Lawrence is the byline of a New York-based suspense writer, performer, composer and prize-winning playwright and poet whose previous books have been praised as “lively. . .” (Publishers Weekly); “constantly absorbing. . .” (starred Kirkus Review); and “superbly crafted prose” (Boston Herald). SILENT SCREAMS, SILENT VICTIM and SILENT KILLS are the first three books in her Lee Campbell thriller series. Her other work is published under the name of Carole Bugge. Titan Press recently reissued her first Sherlock Holmes novel, THE STAR OF INDIA.

F.J. Lennon is a novelist, screenwriter, and video game producer. His love of all things paranormal spawned two novels: DEVIL’S GATE and SOUL TRAPPER, which follow the turbulent life of rogue ghost hunter, Kane Pryce. He also authored EVERY MISTAKE IN THE BOOK, a light-hearted business memoir about his years in the video game industry. He lives in Los Angeles, California with his wife and two daughters.

49 Comments
  1. Definitely love/hate. I really enjoy learning things, but I’m one of those people who get antsy when I’m not writing. And I’m always afraid I’ll get so sucked into the research that it will take all my writing time.

    Right now I’m working on a historical Edinburgh novel, and it’s a challenge to find some of the things I need to know – for example, where the police station was in 19th century Edinburgh.

    On the other hand, thank you, Al Gore, for inventing the Internet.

  2. Love it! But then, I love to travel, I love to explore.

    In fact, in five days I leave for Kyrgyzstan, from there I hope to make a quick run up to Almaty, Kazakhstan, and then I’m off to Bahrain in the Persian Gulf. All to research the next spy thriller in the Mark Sava series. For THE COLONEL’S MISTAKE, the first novel in the series, I visited Azerbaijan, and Iran among other places. When I’m exploring these countries, I try to go to places and observe things that your average tourist wouldn’t, and then bring those observations to my writing. From my perspective, it doesn’t get any better than that.

    Research to me is also about talking to people—recently I had a fascinating conversation with a Marine helicopter pilot who served in Afghanistan. In a few days, I’ll be peppering my guide in Kyrgyzstan with more questions than he wants to answer. My understanding of the world is better because of conversations like these. So are my thrillers.

    Finally, my research involves a lot of reading, on a wide range of topics. (I list a bibliography on my website danmayland.com, for readers who are interested in learning more about books that have helped inform my writing.) I enjoy that too.

    Bottom line—for me, research is about learning, and I love to learn. The only hard part is, after doing all that research, not using 95% of it my thrillers. Few things can kill a good story faster than trying to cram in tons of research that’s not really relevant to developing the characters or plot. The 5% that stays in though, the part that fits just right…well, that can really lend a sense of authenticity to the story.

  3. I definitely have a love/hate relationship with research. On the love side, it gives me a great excuse (plus a tax write-off) to travel to locales I might otherwise not have gone. The best part of that is that sometimes you discover things you otherwise never would have known. And I love digging into something that suddenly surprises and enlightens you in unexpected ways. For example, for my new book, SCORPION WINTER, I needed to research what caused the Chernobyl nuclear disaster (the cause of which is far from clear or obvious) and what happened in the aftermath. Fascinating. The negative part is when you are writing and going along and all of a sudden you absolutely have to know something and it forces you to stop writing so you can find out that odd little piece of information that’ll add verisimilitude to the book. Research is fun and frustrating, necessary and sometimes irrelevant. As I said, love/hate.

  4. Research is one of the things I love best about being an author — especially when a document I’ve been trying to get my hands on lands in my hands. I love poring through documents, court files, police reports, witness statements — all to glean valuable and often little-known details that I can fold into my manuscript. For a historic novel, which I’m just beginning to write, it’s no different, because the facts need to be accurate.

    For true crime books, landing plumb crime scene and police interviews is the gold ring. When I was researching THE MILLIONAIRE’S WIFE, the police department wasn’t necessarily forthcoming with reports, because of the criminal trial that was pending as I pursued the story. So, a when Columbia University graduate journalism student read a blog about my upcoming book, he contacted me to comment for a paper he was writing.

    As it turned out, his professor was good friends with an attorney close to the case, and the student he was given access to files. The student asked me, “Do you want the case file? I’m finished with my research. I’ll send it to you.” Once I had the file in hand, I soon discovered dozens of interview reports from witnesses done at the scene of the crime. The details were immense. That’s often how authors get documents — by networking, and, of course, through the generosity of others.

    I thoroughly enjoy reading articles, encyclopedic entries, and finding new details I can pursue and dig deeper to flesh out, or simply information to confirm facts that I’m trying to verify. Research includes interviewing people, plus walking the neighborhoods where the subjects in my books live and work. When I wrote about Susan Berman, daughter of a mobster, I went to the house where she grew up, walked down the hallways, walked in the back yard to her playhouse. Then I walked two blocks to the grade school she attended and from where she had been kidnapped at just eight years old (she kicked her way out of the kidnapper’s car and survived). It puts me in their world.

    Then, it’s a matter of folding those details and interviews into the pages of the book and having it all come together. That, to me, is the biggest challenge. But I enjoy that step as well. It all boils down to the process of writing — a daunting, but satisfying, task and the reason I continue to write.

  5. Seems like the going answer so far is a love/hate relationship with research.

    For me, research ranks very close second to my love of the actual writing process. I’m always researching something and filing it away for the next project. For my most recent novel, I did countless hours of research to get small details as close to correct as I could. This was also the first novel where I really pulled from my military experience and career, adding just enough “detail” to make the plot intriguing, while fictionalizing what I needed as to not give sensitive information away. One of the key plot point involved the processes in which a President goes through to confirm and execute a nuclear strike. I knew a lot of that information was easily searchable on google, but I came away surprised at just how much ‘technically’ classified information was just a few search keystrokes away if one knew what you were looking for.

    I haven’t been able to (personally) travel for a book yet, but Uncle Sam has allowed me to see the world on his dime and I’ve always jotted down notes in the places I’ve been stationed at or visited. I’ve joked with my fellow author friends that if my computer ever got siezed, some of my google searches would really raise some eyebrows!

    R. Thomas Riley

  6. Dan Mayland’s comment about not using 95% of what you research because nothing kills a story faster than tons of research that’s not relevant to the plot or character is bang on. So is Cathy Scott’s account of walking in the actual footsteps. Physically visiting a locale – if you can – can make something real the way nothing else can. R. Thomas Riley’s comment about if one’s computer ever got seized, the Google searches would raise some eyebrows is, of course, true for all of us. Good stuff.

    1. I’ve read a few books that spiraled into pages and pages of “research info dump” lately and it definitely slows down the narrative. I think the key in using research is to drop just enough info through dialogue or exposition to allow the reader to get a sense of setting, but not go overboard. It’s a very delicate balancing act. One writer in particular who does this extremely well is Lee Child. I absolutely love how he crafts his fight scenes in particular, with bits of information on how an arm can be broken, for example, but it never reads like an “info dump”

      Thomas

  7. I too agree with Dan’s comment. I have a saying I use on my students: “Your research is showing.” It’s frustrating when you’ve done all that work, but discipline should always win out in the end, and you should put in only what you NEED the reader to know.

    I know all of us folks here know that, but to my students it’s often a bitter pill.

  8. While I do enjoy research, I wholeheartedly agree with Andrew when he wrote:

    “The negative part is when you are writing and going along and all of a sudden you absolutely have to know something and it forces you to stop writing so you can find out that odd little piece of information that’ll add verisimilitude to the book.”

    That hit home for me because today, for example, I’ll be trying to figure out a few subtle linguistic differences between Bahraini and Iraqi Arabic. Regrettably, I don’t speak a word of any version of Arabic, so might be hard thing to figure out. Breaks like these, that involve research I hadn’t thought to do before beginning the writing process, definitely take me out of the flow of the story for a time.

  9. Yes, Dan, exactly – and it’s impossible to know precisely how much is TOO much, and when to stop. So since I’m a control freak, I’m uncomfortable with that. Curiosity can get the better of you.

    The little voice in my head says, “Cut it out and write – you’re just wasting time now…. ” But then, writers are by nature curious people, aren’t they? (In both senses of the word……)

    1. Carole, there have been a few times when I’ve started out to research one thing in particular and then found something else interesting and by the time I realize it, it’s two hours later 🙂

      Thomas

    1. Carole,

      I’d love to see a representation of “google searches” from authors…can you imagine the weird search terms that’d pop up. For my most recent novel, I ended up on some very interesting conspiracy sites with some of the weirdest ideas, it’d be funny, except these posters really believed Obama was a lizard person, etc

      Thomas

  10. I genuinely love the research aspect of fiction writing.

    I tend to ground a large percentage of my fiction in actual historical events, or at least urban legend, so I spend a great deal of time researching, searching for threads to tie seemingly disparate research topics together.

    The novel series that I’m writing now (Soul Trapper and Devil’s Gate), is grounded in the paranormal, but has lots of authentic ties. At it’s heart, it’s a ghost story about the Colorado Street Bridge in Pasadena, CA, also known as Suicide Bridge. Over the course of the last century, hundreds of people have jumped off that bridge and it is now purported to be haunted. So I got to research the bridge from both paranormal and historical perspectives. My paranormal investigations blurred the line between fact and fiction. I detail some of my experiences in my blog (http://fjlennon.blogspot.com/). Suffices to say that I have no doubt, based on my personal experiences, that the bridge is haunted by restless and troubled souls.

    But I also got to research the bridge and surrounding area from strictly historical perspectives and that was equally fascinating. I learned about bridge construction and road construction. I learned about the a wealthy benefactor of Pasadena who lived near the bridge in the 19th century. I began to see links between several locations that were in close proximity to each other: the Colorado Street Bridge, Devil’s Gate Dam, NASA Jet Propulsion Lab, a mysterious location called Gravity Hill where objects roll uphill instead of downhill. The more I researched, the more the book took on a life of its own.

    Research gives authenticity to my work. I find it much harder to make things completely up. I love to fictionalize the real world.

  11. Thomas,
    That’s such an interesting concept, and I can see it as a premise for a story or a character. Maybe someone is kind of twisted (mentally ill or delusional), and they get addicted to internet searches and conspiracy theories, which they begin to believe….. on some level, Ted Kaczynski was one of those people. I think he actually believed all his crazy delusions about the “industrialized state,” etc.

  12. But those conspiracy people also freak me out. I was at a wedding with my nephew and he started talking about the “conspiracy” behind 9/11 (i.e. not the terrorists who actually did it), and it freaked me out. So happy hunting – hope you can lock your doors at night!

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