And then it happens.
A glaring factual error drags you out of the narrative. It can be something small, like a piece of specialist knowledge that happens to be related to your day job, or an out-of-place piece of slang. It could be that the author hasn’t researched the geography of the area properly. I once read a short crime story in which the protagonist left London for Glasgow, making the trip in two hours. It threw me out of the plot. I struggled with the rest of the story since it hinged upon the timing of this journey.
Currently, I’m juggling a short thriller amongst my other writing. The main character is a hitman who travels around the US. He’s a sniper. The main problems for me were establishing a sense of place for each real life location, none of which I’ve ever visited; and the fact I know nothing about weapons. Of all the stories I’ve written, this is the one that’s taken the most research. I’m way out of my comfort zone -as well as all the factual stuff it’s my first attempt at writing a thriller- and that’s a great place to be. It keeps me doubting myself. Is that the right gun? Is that the right calibre? Is that distance walkable? How could he get from here to there? How long would it take? Doubting means checking. Checking means effort. And effort means I keep my edge.
Research is important at every stage of the writing process. Prior to starting my WIP (currently titled 'A Gift of Opal'), I researched a suitable place for him to live. This turned out to be San Marcos. The opening scene takes place a significant drive away, and Olympia fitted the bill. A look on Google maps found the perfect location for a hit.
At almost every paragraph there is some detail that needs checking. Further, since the story is set in America, I want to use Americanisms and American grammar wherever possible – and all of this needs double checking. Or at the very least highlighting for later. And it’s not just individual words and spellings. Sometimes it’s whole phrases. Does any other culture use the phrase “should’ve went to the bathroom”?
The final draft/editing stages will provide further opportunities to check for accuracy. At this point I’ll be looking over everything of which I’m unsure, everything I’ve tried previously to ensure is accurate, and questioning every assumption I’ve made. Word choice, travel times, building styles and locations. Everything.
The same level of scrutiny should be given to every piece of writing we create. I read an online article recently about the obsessive levels of detail some directors put into their films - details that don’t make it onto the screen. For example in Seven David Fincher hired a designer who spent fifteen THOUSAND dollars on second-hand journals which he ripped apart and sewed together by hand. Do you remember seeing them? Probably not. They were almost all background decoration for Kevin Spacey's apartment. Such details don’t necessarily make films any better, but applying that level of attention to each aspect of the production surely enhanced those films.
Readers are more likely to get lost in a story that offers an immersive level of detail, so long as it is done skilfully. Readers who are also writers are likely to appreciate the effort that has gone into your creation. It’s why some authors employ researchers to do the legwork for them. As indie authors very few of us have that luxury, meaning the onus is very much on us to get the research right.
Don’t let tiny details ruin a reader’s experience.
The phrase 'write what you know' gets bandied around a lot by those offering advice to other authors. I've never taken it literally. I know a hell of a lot about running children's homes and about writing; about rock music from the seventies to the nineties; about guitars; and about comics. All concrete, factual stuff, and not a mix that's going to produce many stories. I'd always thought the phrase meant taking what you know about people, about their emotions and relationships, and using those as the building blocks for your stories. For example the friendships between Martin, Eddie and Tony in the Tor. Or DI Winchcome's frustrations at the limitations of her job in The Hollow (published in The Soul Bazaar). Or Olsen's sense of inadequacy in Reformed. All human emotions, all things that resonate with the reader. Write about these well and you're halfway to a good story readers will enjoy. What I've learned in writing A Gift of Opal is that those things you don't know about -those concrete, factual things people can easily verify or refute- are almost as important. Write what you know. And if you don't know, find out.