paranormal research, research for novels, Slush Heap, The Cover Contessa

Keeping it Real: Researching for Novels

Ten years ago I was reading a book by Anne Rice and didn’t want to put the thing down.  I was so into the story, so entrenched in that world, that real life just fell away. I didn’t question anything Ms. Rice wrote.  It’s called “suspension of disbelief” because the writing and story carries you along well enough that anything can happen and you allow yourself to believe it to be real.

But then I got to the hospital scene that takes place in Geneva, Switzerland.  The scene where the main character goes unnoticed on the staff because she can speak perfect German.

Uh. Yeah.  We speak French here in Geneva.

My suspension of disbelief?  Blown wide open.  I found I just couldn’t get back into the book anymore after that.  It was still awesome.  Still creepy.  But it now felt fake to me because of that practically insignificant detail.  Anne Rice probably never knew it was an issue.  German is the main language in Switzerland.  Had I not been living in Geneva at the time, I wouldn’t have even
noticed this snafu.

Fast forward ten years. My book, Untethered, is published.  I spent hours and hours researching astral projection, sleep disorder tests and how to make explosions with Diet Coke and Mentos.  What I didn’t do?  What never even occurred to me and the dozen or so people who read it before publication?  Laws on how to proceed should a kid faint in class.  A fellow author called me out on this in her review because that’s what pulled her out of my novel.  That’s what blew away her suspension of disbelief.

Dammit.  Why didn’t I see that before publication?

I’m not going to rewrite the book since I’ve already done so eighteen times.  I’m hoping the writing and story carry most readers along well enough that a detail like that won’t ruin the novel for them.  I mean, the girl is astral projecting.  It’s not super realistic fiction.

But that’s kind of beside the point. No matter how wild your story is, you need to keep the realistic stuff as close to real as possible.  You need to keep your reader engrossed at all levels.  And part of that is giving them no reason to doubt the world you’ve created.  Good writing makes it happen.  So do strong characters. Yet, unfortunately, there’s no substitute for research.  (Big groan here.)

No author is going to get absolutely everything right.  There will always be a reader out there more knowledgeable in one aspect of your novel than you are.  It’s going to happen.  But research makes it less likely to happen.  Or at least less likely to happen often.

Writing paranormal fiction gives me some leeway.  Some strange stuff can show up in my books and it’s par for the course.  But paranormal research is probably the most fun.  Studying medical procedure is torture for me.  Studying ghost busting? Awesome! (Check out my guest post at the Cover Contessa on paranormal research HERE.) 

It’s a research weekend for me, so I’m off to good ol’ central Wisconsin to study setting.  I get to go swimming in Devil’s Lake and eat local cuisine.  Now that’s the kind of research I can handle.

Then Tuesday evening at 7pm EST, this week’s edition of Slush Heap is focused on — guess what? — researching for novels.  Joseph Giacalone and Marguerite Ashton will be the experts.  I’ll be there, too, to learn from them and to share my experience of not always getting things right. 

6 thoughts on “Keeping it Real: Researching for Novels”

  1. Why are books held to a much higher standard then movies? I'm in the medical field. I see movies where the medical facts are screwed up all the time. My brother who's a doctor and other people in the medical field just laugh it off and continue enthralled in the movie. So why is it that if you get a small, insignificant fact wrong in a book everybody goes haywire?


  2. Exactly. My sister is a medical examiner and those shows make her cringe, too. For some reason, books need to be meticulously researched while shows or movies can be ridiculous.


  3. I think the standards are different because the mediums are so different. In a book, you can stop and reread the sentence – the suspension of disbelief is as easy to break as lifting your eyes from the page. In a film, the moments pass quickly and (especially if you are in a movie theater) you are carried along by the general atmosphere.

    I would say that, by comparison, abstract short movies that make no narrative sense but have a visual and auditory flow are much easier to watch than an abstract short story is to read – written work takes place entirely in the reader's head, while a film or TV show carries on whether the viewer is thinking about something else or not.


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