The hell with research. Just make it up.

I once had a friend imply that writing genre fiction was somehow easier and more enjoyable because I get to come home from work, sit down in a chair, and (this is a direct quote) “make shit up.”

She didn’t mean it as an insult, and I didn’t take it as one. Really, she was talking about her own struggles to write a memoir, which I totally get. She’s already agented based on a blog she kept (which has since been taken down), and she’s a good writer.

But sometimes I think about that line. Is that what people think? That I come home, flop into an easy chair, and make up a story?

Yes and no.

The paranormal elements, yes, I make them up. When I wrote Elemental, I researched how the four elements of Earth, Air, Fire, and Water worked into different cultures. And I’m using the term “research”  loosely here. I read some articles on Wikipedia, I read some articles on witchcraft, stuff like that. Stones play a role in the plot, and I looked for stones that were known for the specific qualities I gave them. (i.e., garnet for confidence, or citrine for courage.)

But that’s about it.

The paranormal stuff is the easy part. So yes, making shit up is fun and honestly, one of the best parts of writing. But though the paranormal stuff is HUGE in the book, it’s such a minor part of the writing process.

Just like in any kind of story, I needed to keep character motivation at the forefront of my mind. I need to keep character at the forefront of my mind. The plot needs to keep moving. I write every scene with a goal of maintaining conflict on every page. Conflict adds tension, and tension keeps the pages turning. I read my friend’s edit letter, and the editor had a fantastic insight: every scene should add a minor turn to the plot. If it doesn’t, it’s unnecessary. 

Last night I was really struggling with this scene in my sequel. Gabriel, who is kind of a badass sports punk who gets into it with everyone, was arguing with Layne, a total brainiac who’s having some issues at home. She breaks down crying in the middle of their fight, and I kept revising this one little scene for two hours. He was tender. He was gentle. He was understanding.

Seriously, I was ready to pull my hair out.

Then I remembered that Gabriel is none of those things. He’s confused because she’s upset, and when he gets confused, he gets mad. Here’s how it turned out:

Layne cried for like a full minute before realizing her face was pressed against Gabriel Merrick’s sweatshirt.
Which was quite nicely pressed against his chest.
This. Was. Awful.
She jerked back with an indrawn breath. “I’m sorry.”
He didn’t let go, so she kept her eyes fixed on the drawstring of his hoodie. He probably had a dozen remarks just waiting to let fly, and she so didn’t need to see the derision in his face.
But he spoke, and his voice was low. “Don’t be sorry. I get it.”
She looked up, then, because she couldn’t reconcile the voice with the guy. It wasn’t quite gentle—she didn’t think a boy like him could be gentle—but it was something … else.
His eyes were intent, dark blue in the shade of the path. This close, she could tell he hadn’t shaved yet this morning, and with the way his hands encircled her wrists and held her practically pressed up against him—well, it was just way too frigging much. Hormone overload. She was either going to kiss him or start crying again, and both options sucked.
Well, one option sucked.
And that’s the one that seemed to be taking over. Layne jerked her hands out of his and started walking, swiping at her eyes. “Forget it.”
“Whoa.” He caught her arm.
God, his eyes were searching her face. She felt her eyes welling up again.
“Let me go,” she said. “I need to catch my horse. If my dad finds him in the barn and I’m not there…”
Now she pulled against his grip. “It’s true. Just—”
“Why do you keep running from me?”
She gritted her teeth. “I am not running from you. I need to—”
“Jesus Christ, would you calm down a second?”

 That’s 300 words. It took me about two hours to write them. Sounds easy and enjoyable, right?

Especially when I had a revelation last night and I think I’m going to end up deleting them all.

But it’s not just character and story and plot. I can’t make up everything. The story takes place in our universe, so some things need to be accurate.

I read a book a few months ago, where a boy and his brother went on a road trip. They had to travel through Baltimore, and there’s a scene where they duck into a convenience store to buy beer.

That took me right out of the story, because in Maryland, you can’t buy beer at a convenience store. You can only buy beer at a liquor store (yes, really), and in many counties, you can’t even buy alcohol on Sunday.

That’s minor, yes. But it’s one of those details that’s so easy to get right.

I’m doing more research for this story than I ever have. I was talking about it (read: whining about it) to my husband this morning, and he said, “Gee, it’s kind of like a job, huh?”

Honestly, he’s lucky I don’t make him sleep on the couch.

But here’s what I want to get right:

House fires: I spent two hours interviewing the local fire chief, because I needed to know exactly what it’s like in a house fire. What it sounds like, what the dangers are (did you know that most of those “McMansions” are generally built out of nothing more than toothpicks, and they go up like a match? Or that one of the biggest risks for a firefighter is falling through a floor?), what things the public don’t think about. These are things you can’t make up. And while I spent two hours interviewing him, that doesn’t include the amount of time I spent on YouTube watching fire and rescue videos, or the pre-research I did so I could ask him intelligent questions. (I blogged about my trip to the firehouse, and you can read about it here.)

Police procedure: One of my characters is going to get arrested and charged with something pretty serious. Since they’re teenagers, I need to know how police handle those kinds of situations. Would he be thrown in the holding cell with adults? Would he have access to a lawyer? Who makes the decision whether to charge him as an adult or a minor? What does the inside of a police station look like? I have an officer lined up to talk to me, I just want to make sure I have my ducks in a row so, again, I don’t look like an idiot. Again, these are details that need to be right.

Deaf kids, ordinary school: So far, this is the most challenging. I have a minor character who’s deaf, and he wants to play basketball. He goes to a mainstream school, and I’ve been doing a lot of reading about the pros and cons of parents who make the decision to send their deaf kids to a normal school. I don’t know anything about basketball, so I’m trying to find out if his playing on a regular team would even be possible. (If anyone knows anyone who knows anything about working with deaf kids, especially playing sports, I would love to talk to them.) This is something I definitely need to get right.

Yes, all this research is fun, and interesting. Really, going to the firehouse was fascinating.

But it’s still hard work. Don’t ever let anyone tell you it’s not.

What about you guys? What kinds of research have you done for your novels?


8 thoughts on “The hell with research. Just make it up.

  1. You need to know what happens when a teenager gets arrested in Baltimore? Sounds like the easiest research you’ve ever had to do – don’t you have a teenager at home? Anything for research, right? 🙂

  2. In my latest work in progress, I made my characters potato farmers. Why? No idea. People like potatoes.

    I had them harvesting in early fall and after I wrote the scene, I wondered, “Is that when potatoes are harvested?” All I can say is thank the stars for the Internet. And in case you’re wondering, potatoes are harvested year round. Different types mature at different times of year.

  3. You weren’t kidding when you tweeted that you were struggling with the scene! I like the tension here, even without knowing the characters.

    My first book is set in the 1850s, in Spain, Jamaica, Antigua, and the New England area. So yeah, I had to do research in time and place. And class and race (interracial romance) and some basic criminal law.

    I loved doing the research, but ended up cutting so much of it out because it disrupted the pacing of the story.

  4. Yeah, for the first time ever I did a fair bit of research for my SUNDOWN series – I had to research things like deaths overseas and how families back home are informed, how music festivals work, and even how celebrities get their luggage taken care of when travelling. LOL.

    I think you make a very good point here about how long it took you to write that scene – because you were coming at it originally from the wrong angle – the wrong one for this particular character, anyway.

  5. Did you know camels pee backwards? And their feces are so dry that you can immediately light them on fire upon defecation. Also, it takes 50 deer to make one oz of musk. Oh, and the word musk? It comes from the sanskrit word muska, which means testicles. Because that’s the part of the deer used.

    Also, a gong-farmer is a person who used to collect solid waste from old-timey toilets.

    And we eat only the genetalia of sea-cucumbers.


    Okay. Yeah. Anyway, these are all random facts that I learned while doing research for my books. Writing historical fantasy is not so much “making shit up” as it is “making sure the shit I make up works with the shit I can’t”. 😉

    I can’t wait to read more of Gabrial and Laney. Their dynamic is great from the few snippets I’ve read. 😀

  6. I photographed (with film, back in the day) the entire path taken by a teenager getting chased down a REAL street in Edinburgh, Scotland, then spent time climbing around near traintracks and risking getting yelled at by officials while I tried to find his hiding place.
    I spent hours research celtic mythology for that Brigid ms for which you approved the protagonist’s name. 😉
    And I’ve spent $$$ on books on herbal medicines for my newest, completely unwritten but thoroughly plotted over and over again WIP.
    I also had to teach myself Scots (okay, I had to do this for my MSc dissertation, but I used it in one YA novel as well) so one of my characters could speak authentically. (Yes, I had a Scot check it. David Cunningham, author of Cloudworld and Cloudworld At War, born and raised not too far from Glasgow, checked every word of that character’s speach and found only TWO errors!)

  7. I was a stat girl for a wrestling team in high school, and yes, my high school was normal, public, with a deaf program and yes, deaf kids were on the wrestling team. Basically, they have their own sort of assistant coach who can speak to them through sign language when they’re at practice, but there are other translators so when the head coach is speaking to the whole team, the deaf players know what he/she is saying. And even though there’s that difference, players that can hear and deaf kids bond a lot. That doesn’t hinder their relationship at all. And deaf people are actually pretty good at reading lips too. 🙂 I hope that helps.

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