Monday, August 01, 2011

Research the Details—But…

What I'm reading: Rogue Warrior by Richard Marcinko; One True Love, by Barbara Freethy.

I recently read a book where a character was learning to fly a small jet. The character was already an experienced pilot, but hadn't been trained on this type of aircraft. The author is also a pilot, and as I read the scene—pages and pages of it—it was clear enough to me that the author was simply showing his readers how much he knew about the topic.

To me, it was a hair-pulling couple of chapters. Maybe pilots enjoy it, but to me, it would be like showing a person learning how to drive a car, and following the along as they learned where to put the key, how to turn it, where the brakes were, and then followed along every inch of driveway and road on their first excursion. Had absolutely nothing to do with the story other than getting the character qualified so he could drive the company plane.

The trick to showing details is not to show the reader how much research you've done, but to use only what the POV character needs to show in the scene. If it's a naïve character, then they're likely to be thinking more about the details, either a how-to, or a more detailed description as they absorb new surroundings. But if they're experienced, then they're probably barely going to think about things. How often do you walk into your bedroom and notice the color of paint on the wall, or the precise shade of blue of your bedspread?

In DANGER IN DEER RIDGE, a character shows up at the heroine's door with a plant as a gift. He's trying to establish a landscaping business, and it seemed like an appropriate offering—especially since he wants to plant it in her yard with a small sign advertising his company.

Since I set the book in the area where I live, and I haven't lived here long, I didn't really know what kind of a plant my guy would be giving her. I know we can't do any serious landscaping where we live—between the deer and the watering restrictions, nothing would survive. When I was ready to replace the XXX research plants notation in my manuscript, I searched for information on xeriscaping in the Colorado mountains, and came up with some possible plants. I didn't need to know much more about them than what they looked like—did they have flowers, and if so, what color—and that they'd grow where my scene was set. As long as the scene wasn't about the heroine trying to landscape her yard, there was no reason to go into detail.

This is the final scene. In it I hope I've given the reader enough information without pontificating or slowing the story.

“Hi,” he said. “I hope you don’t mind me stopping by unannounced, but I wanted to give you this. Consider it a housewarming gift.”

She fingered the oval green leaves and tiny yellow flowers. “What is it?”
“A Siberian peashrub. Caragana arborescen, if you want to get technical.”

“It’s lovely, but a gift isn’t necessary.”

“My pleasure, although I’ll confess to an ulterior motive.”

What motive? Her heart jumped. She shifted into what she considered her social mode. How many dreary events had she endured as the loving wife of Victor? She knew how to be polite, how to pretend to listen to boring conversation, and how to excuse herself when she couldn’t tolerate any more. Not that there was anywhere to go with Mr. Logan on her porch. She gave him a polite smile. “What would that be?”

“If you’ll let me plant it—and a few more—it’ll be good advertising for my business.”

“I’m not sure that’s a smart idea. I’m not much of a gardener. I’m afraid dead plants won’t have customers seeking your services.”

He chuckled. “That’s not a problem. I specialize in xeriscaping.”

“What’s xeriscaping? Sounds complicated.”

“Not in the least. Means I use plants that grow in this climate, without you having to water them, or do much of anything.”

In another scene, in my current WIP, I have two detectives trying to solve what is probably a homicide. As I mentioned in last week's post, I listen in as they discuss the case, and write what they're saying. But as I wrote, I realized I wasn't sure what the proper cop 'lingo' would be when they're talking about the deceased woman.

I emailed a cop contact (if you write any kind of crime fiction and haven't found Lee Lofland's blog, The Graveyard Shift, get over there!) and asked him whether they'd refer to her as 1) Felicity; 2) Felicity Markham; 3) Markham; or 4) Miss Markham. Then, on a whim, I stuck in a #5 – 'the victim'

He answered almost immediately: We never call them by name, We'd refer to her as the victim (note: not, 'vic' as in television). Coincidentally, I ran into a local retired homicide detective while I was waiting for my car to get new tires. I asked him the same question. He said, "Either d.b. (for dead body) or "Victim." And, since the third time's the charm, while we were having breakfast at our usual Sunday haunt, we started chatting with another couple who's there regularly. We were talking about books and reading tastes, and turns out he's retired from law enforcement and fire fighting. So, of course, I asked him, and he also said, 'victim' because they don't like to personalize the victims when they're working a case.

In the manuscript, I'll use these bits of "reality" although I won't stop the story to explain. The goal is for the scene to sound like two cops talking, and why in the world would they stop to tell each other why they're using the term "victim" instead of "Felicity Markham?"

And one more thing to note: People are almost always happy to talk to you about their jobs. The best research is the first-hand sort, so cultivate those contacts. 

Tomorrow, my guest is a writing duo, Colleen Collins and Shaun Kaufman, who are also private investigators. They've got a giveaway, but even if they didn't, you'll want to see what they have to say about doing surveillance in a rural area.


Anonymous said...

Wonderful points! As a writer I try to put myself into the character's head so I think what the character is thinking. That really helps in terms of figuring out what and how much to describe. As an editor, I've had some go-rounds with writers who describe endless details that I know readers will skip or worse make them put the book down. I think it makes a difference as to what genre we're talking about. A techno-thriller might require more detail. I DID create a character once who noticed the color of her kitchen walls--because her loser husband picked out the color and she hated the reminder every time she went into the kitchen. In the end, she painted the walls, so it was part of her characterization.

Hart Johnson said...

I think you've nailed it, Terry. I HATE reading ad nauseum details that don't matter to the story--it is one of the reasons I can't read Tom Clancy--all that bloody mechanical stuff *yawn*

The writer DOES need to know enough that an actual expert won't spot errors, but only what would really be attended to.

I am doing a cozy mystery series set in Roanoke with a gardening theme, so I've had to do similar research to your plant stuff (what blooms when in a zone 7) but it is definitely easier to fill in after I'm done or I'm tempted to put in more detail than is appropriate.

Elizabeth Spann Craig/Riley Adams said...

Too much detail just kills a book for me. To me, it's "The Moby Dick syndrome" (all those chapters on harpoons!)

Terry Odell said...

Kay - yes, if you keep yourself firmly entrenched in the character's head, you're less likely to ramble on about things your reader won't care about.

Hart - good point. Filling in details later can help narrow them down to the important ones. If you write it while you're researching, you're more likely to put way too much on the page.

Elizabeth - haven't thought of Moby Dick in years. Thanks (HA!) for the reminder!

Vonnie Davis said...

I operate on the iceberg principle. I do a lot of research, not to use it in my story, but so I can write about it with a degree of confidence. I probably only use a tenth of the info I've collected. This info is shared through the character's pov, but only enough so that the reader knows my pov character is educated/experienced on this topic. Just enough to give the prose some flavor.

Jacqueline Seewald said...

There are a number of bestselling authors who info dump and it always surprises me to see it since it's one of the things we're cautioned not to do as writers.
I had to do a lot of research for the sake of authenticity when I
wrote my Regency romance Tea Leaves and Tarot Cards, but it remained as background. Much easier writing my mystery series since most of the details are what I know about.

Terry Odell said...

Vonnie - excellent analogy (although I think it's 1/7th of the iceberg that's above the surface--I'd better go look that up!)

Jacqueline - if you know the subject matter, it will show in the writing.

Joyce Yarrow said...

Great topic, Terry!
For me the trick is to focus the research on topics that reveal character or move along the storyline, so I can use as much of it as I want. For example, on my research trip to Russia I visited settings that were dramatically central to the story
(such as Vladimir Central Prison)and researched details - such as how the Vory survived in prison - that had an impact on the plot.

Karen said...

I definitely skim over the parts that get too, too detailed - I just don't need to know 'all that' to enjoy the story. Most of the time I am going to try the skimming method so I can finish the book; I can only think of a couple of times where I did not finish a book because I didn't think I would get past 'all that' in this century.
Terry, I thought your example was perfect.

Terry Odell said...

Karen, I'm a skimmer, too. And thanks -- it's not often I see my name and 'perfect' in the same sentence.

Terry Odell said...

Joyce,I agree we have to do a LOT of research. But we don't have to WRITE all of it! Your trip sounds fascinating.

Lelani Black said...

Ohh, good post. I, too, will skim through research details when I feel, as a reader, that the details are no longer pushing the story forward, or making it interesting. If a cover, blurb, or excerpt has gotten me to buy the story, I already trust the author has done his/her research/homework :) I love information that's cleverly woven into the story/dialogue, too.

Terry Odell said...

Lelani - right. I love to learn something when I read, but don't pound me over the head with it.

jenny milchman said...

This is a great topic. Avoiding the research dump--knowing how much not just your readers want to know, but how much is right for the *story*--is one sign of a skilled writer. Often that stuff belongs in early drafts, I find, as I feel my way through things, but is ultimately cut--if not by me, then by one of my smarter trustys :)

Terry Odell said...

Jenny -- gotta love those trustys

Maryann Miller said...

Good points, Terry. I like the way you worked the facts into your scene.
Regarding the cop lingo, I've had to educate my new editor for the next Season's mystery as she is not familiar with police procedures. It is so important to get the facts and the lingo right.

Terry Odell said...

Maryann - thanks. And editors who know the realm of the books they're editing are golden.

Caroline Clemmons said...

I love research and strive to have details accurate in my writing. However, I think by immersing ourselves in what we've learned from our research, we can skimp on the background info. As you said, I don't want to know each step of flying the plane, I just want it to get off the ground. I do hate, though, when I see inaccuracies in books. It makes me think the author short-changed readers.

Leah St. James said...

Great advice, Terry. I'm going to check out The Graveyard Shift too!

Terry Odell said...

Caroline, I agree. And if an author gets one fact wrong, I start to wonder about the rest.

Leah - Lee has some great stuff at his blog.

Matt Bille said...

Terry, exactly. I don;t want to feel I can be anywhere: I want to be where the character is. But Tom Clancy went on once for about two pages on how you make an automobile gas tank. It was ridiculous.