One question people ask is how factual their stories should be? Where is the line between realistically portraying something and making things up? That’s a difficult question to answer. My science fiction books are only science fiction in that I give a different explanation for things that actually exist. It is a fact that there are large statues on Easter Island. The fiction in my book Area 51 comes in when I give my own explanation for why those statues were made.
If you are writing a mystery you can’t be too far off base with your police procedural information. I think many people are lulled by the inaccuracies portrayed in movies. Books have to be more accurate for several reasons; one is that the average reader is more on the ball than the average movie goer; second, you can slide something by in a couple of seconds of film but remember the reader can linger over and reread a paragraph again and again. A reader can also turn back from page 320 to check page 45 where you mentioned the same thing and compare the two.
Some examples where research adds to story. I was writing a book titled AREA 51 THE SPHINX. Therefore I did a lot of research on the Great Sphinx. In one thick tome I was wading my way through there was one sentence that caught my attention. It said that Sir Richard Francis Burton, a man who’d always fascinated me, visited the Great Sphinx in 1855. The opening scene of the novel ended up being this visit.
I was wandering the library as I am wont to do, and saw a book titled: JAPAN’S SECRET WAR. I picked it up and was quite intrigued at the author’s premise that the Japanese actually developed a working atomic bomb and detonated it in Manchuria in the waning days of World War II. As a fiction writer, this was a premise I could run with and I took it one step further: what if there were a second bomb, and it was taken by submarine to San Francisco at the end of the war and left at the base of the Golden Gate bridge?
Incidentally, that book, BLACK OPS: THE GATE has just been republished by my own company: Who Dares Wins Publishing. I
I was researching Vikings as one of my Atlantis books had half the storyline set in the year 1,000 AD. I read about an interesting character named Corpse-Loddin, whose career was to sail out in the spring and recover the bodies of Vikings who were trapped the previous winter by ice and killed. He would boil the bodies down, strap them to the side of his boat and sail back home to sell the bodies to their families for proper burial. I found this such a bizarre character that I knew he had to be in my story.
Research helps begin the framework of story.
If you look in the front of many books, you will find a list of acknowledgments where the author thanks those who helped with the book. For a mystery this might include a police department, the forensics department, the coroner, etc. etc. This is primary research and can be very useful.
One problem I have found though in talking to experts about their particular field is they are usually more concerned with “getting it right” than telling a story. As a novelist, telling a story is your priority. You have to listen carefully to the expert and shift through the mounds of information they are shoveling your way and pick the nuggets of gold that you can use to make your story sparkle.
My recommendation if you have to write about something you are unfamiliar with, is to “cheat”. Find another fiction book that writes about the same subject and see how that author did it.
In fact, that’s one of the reasons you need to read a lot and watch a lot of film– to add to your toolkit of techniques and information. Every now and then I read or see something that really strikes me as being different and I file it away in my mind. You have to do the same thing when researching material for your book.