It might seem the exciting part of writing a novel is letting a story flow from the mind—where it bounces around, grows, and molds itself into a more elaborate creation with every thought—and getting it down onto paper where it belongs and can come to life, but that’s only the tip of the iceberg. Half the fun in writing a novel is doing the research behind it. Like my story, the nuggets of truth within it are related to a subject I am passionate about, or should be, otherwise why am I writing it? Doing my homework on the subject can be just as fascinating as writing the story itself, aiding back-story and tidbit facts that make a novel realistic and engaging. For skeptics, research isn’t nearly as difficult as it seems. So often, the facts I need drop into my lap out of nowhere. I can’t count the number of times I’ve sat at a doctor’s office or similar place and tuned into interesting conversations, televised events, or magazine articles that generated instant ideas or tremendous support for a writing project. Many times the timing has been spine-chillingly eerie. Research, like writing, is an incredible journey but can be disappointing when you learn how little of that mind-boggling knowledge makes the final cut.
For me, research makes the writing voyage a more fantastic trek, especially in the realm of the fictional world. And it can lend to some rather unusual and interesting hobbies. In the process of researching for a military thriller, I had to learn a little about guns—well, actually a lot about guns, and rifles, and military weaponry that boggled the mind—but the experience was fun all the same. I even attended a small-arms safety training course, firing my first pistol. Now, I have achieved several levels in marksmanship qualifications, and can shoot a 357 Magnum like Clint Eastwood (okay, maybe not quite as well as Dirty Harry but pretty close). Believe it or not, it is a rather relaxing and empowering hobby. And now I can write about guns and gunfire without hesitation and wondering if I’m getting it right: the smell of a gun being fired, the muzzle flash of a shot, disbursement of smoke, or recoil of the gun itself. By living what I write to some small degree, or interviewing those who have, I can give my stories that raw feeling of authenticity.
Writing nonfiction can be easier since it comes from personal experience—and the research is put directly into the story. Not so with fiction where a world is often created from nothing and grounded in the fantastic and incredulous, and where so many necessary facts rarely make it into the tale. All the same, thrillers and sci-fi stories require some link to reality because they impose such implausibility upon the reader: lavish sword fights, extraordinary battle scenes, and insane high-speed chases. To make the unbelievable real it’s important to understand how equipment and people react under pressure and in extreme situations, and then apply that knowledge to the story. It requires a higher level of study—and in some cases involvement. Of course, that doesn’t mean I become an adrenaline junky: crashing cars, jumping out of moving vehicles, or having a shootout with a villain. But it’s vital to understand how these things interact and perform to get the imagery bang on. Writing a story means diving in deep to make the characters come alive for the reader. That’s why I spend time familiarizing myself with artillery and munitions, practicing at a gun range, and talking with those who make such knowledge or skills a career. A good way to understand a soldiers mind is to interview one. I’ve spent time chatting with retired military personnel to ensure my ideas aren’t way off base—no pun intended. In this way, research brings various components of a fictional story together to compare with and even mimic real life. Unearthing all this material is like a treasure hunt, and a worthwhile undertaking, often done in depth, to simply ensure story content in no way contradicts true events or current conventions.
Getting a story down on paper is exciting and the primary goal of any writer but its’ only half the battle. Researching the facts behind the writing will make it accurate and interesting, even if it’s only for a few lines of back-story that may or may not make it into the book. The research process is important and equally rewarding—and may even lead to some interesting hobbies. Obviously, there is more to writing than pounding out pages. So, don’t be afraid—jump in and have fun. Get absorbed in the process. At some level, live the tale you tell. The more engaged and involved a writer becomes in their work, the more entertaining and lifelike the story will be for the reader.