Author Research: Asking the Experts

medievil castleAs a writer, I always like to make sure my work sounds realistic. Yes, I am writing fiction and yes, I do take poetic license when I need to. I still want my work to be dramatic and exciting, but I also want my work to be realistic.

Fight scenes, medical incidents, specifics about the setting or the car the character is driving…getting the details right on those things can suddenly take your story from a place of make believe to a place of this could have actually happened. Now of course the reader knows it didn’t really happen, but if you can create a world where the details are realistic then you will avoid that moment where the reader makes a face and thinks, “As if!”

So, how do we get these details right?

When I first started writing, I just used to go off the top of my head. I’d read books, I’d watched movies, I could make a scene seem real enough to fool the reader. It didn’t take me long to realize that thinking like that didn’t really cut it.

If you want to create a believable story, you need to do your research…and there’s only so much you can glean from the Internet. I was at a writer’s conference workshop a few years ago when I had one of those revelation moments. The speaking author, who wrote crime thrillers, said he communicated with the owner of a gunshop for each novel, making sure he was getting the details of the guns right and his characters’ gun use correct as well. I remember thinking, “Brilliant! Why had I not thought of that before?”

Contacting the experts can be scary and sometimes you have no luck, but on those moments that you do, it’s solid gold stuff. You can learn more in a ten-minute conversation with someone who knows what they’re talking about than you’ll learn in three hours of Internet searching.

For my Time Spirit Trilogy, I had one scene where my MC, Gemma, travelled back in time to medieval England. Gemma had to battle a castle full of armed guards and I was lucky enough to chat to a group of men who re-enacted fight scenes from history. They basically choreographed my final fight scene for me, telling me exactly which weapons were used in that era. It was awesome!

For Betwixt, I managed to chat to a physiotherapist and a doctor who gave me very detailed injuries for my MC, Nicole. I basically told them what I needed for the storyline to work and they gave her the appropriate injuries and then listed all the symptoms she would go through. They also gave me her recovery plan. They then did the same for Dale’s story (my prequel novella to Betwixt, Before.)

Now living in China, it has been much harder to get in touch with experts, but thankfully I’ve had a few friends help me out, by contacting experts back in their countries. I had one author contact who was friends with a police officer who managed to give me advice on what would happen to a minor being arrested – information I needed for Before.

When I haven’t been able to contact experts directly, I’ve managed to find books that have been really helpful. The best one I’ve read so far is Writing Fight Scenes by Rayne Hall. This book is laid out brilliantly, covering each of the different fighting styles. For my fantasy series – The Elements Trilogy – which involved many sword fighting scenes, I was able to go back and adjust what I’d already written, making the scenes more realistic. Little things I hadn’t considered – like the weight of the swords my characters were wielding and how this would limit some of the things I had them doing. It was extremely helpful. If you write books with any kinds of fight scenes, I highly recommend this book.

One of your goals as a writer should be to write a story that sucks your readers in and doesn’t let them out until they’ve finished. You don’t want “As if!” points in your book and one way to avoid this happening is to get those little details right. So, be brave, contact experts in the field you require your information on. You’d be surprised how many times people love the idea they’re contributing to a novel.

Have you ever approached an expert about anything before?

Have you found an amazing book that’s helped make your work that much more believable?

[Don’t forget, Indies Unlimited offers Getting It Right posts for just this sort of thing, because doesn’t everyone want to “get it right?”]

Author: Melissa Pearl

Melissa Pearl is a Contributing Author for Indies Unlimited and author of multiple novels spanning a variety of genres, from YA fantasy and paranormal to romantic suspense, including award-winning novel, BETWIXT. For more on Melissa, visit her blog or her Amazon author page.

23 thoughts on “Author Research: Asking the Experts”

  1. Of course Melissa, it’s the only way to make a fictional story – real – real for the limitless of our imagination and the readers.


  2. Excellent info, Melissa. I drive my doctor nuts with the questions I ask, because I want to get it right. I’ve bugged radiologists, EMTs, nurses, therapists, stand-up comedians, film-industry agents, whoever has the info I need. 😀

  3. I’m doing the same thing for my book Fly Boys and Rivet Maids. I’ve contacted Japanese who were interned in camps, Rosie riveters, historians, and just about anyone I could think of who might be able to make my fictional book just a little more real. The research has been grueling, but I think in the end, it will be a book folks can dive into and feel like they are in 1940s Inglewood California.

  4. Fight scenes is one thing I ought to have researched more. There really was only one, but still, it could have been more exciting. Asking experts for help makes sense. And non-writing experts likely love the thought that their feedback ended up in a book.

  5. Great information, Melissa. I’m a stickler for details, so I seem to end up spending more time researching than I do writing. If in my story February 14, 1989 was the rainiest day of the year in Memphis, TN, I research to make sure I’m right. If I say the chair squeaked against the tiles of the Lauderdale County Jail floor, I make sure they have tile floors. For my last book I consulted with an attorney, a 911 operator, and a nurse, and I also probably drove staff at the Lauderdale County Jail nuts with my questions. 🙂

  6. Yes, you can’t “fake it ’til you make it” when referencing things you do not know first-hand.

    I know that many prolific (albeit trad-pubbed) authors like Lisa Gardner, for example, do their research! (Yup, I’m a a fan of hers.)

    I kinda thought that contacting experts was common knowledge, but I guess it’s still worth pointing out to others. 😉

  7. I don’t write hard science fiction, but even so, the science elements have to be at least ‘possible’, and that requires a lot of research. For one story I had to research the International Court of Justice to see if there were any trends or precedents that /might/ nudge it in the direction I was hoping it would go. Great fun. 🙂

  8. Thanks for everyone’s comments. It’s cool to see that research is so thoroughly done among us. It shows how serious and committed we are to the job of writing.

    I guess the next question is…how much research is necessary? Does too much research bog you down or is it better to have every last detail accurate? I tend to get enough info to make my story plausible, but I see some of you take it even further than that. I’m sure your stories will be the richer for it 🙂

  9. I’ve been asking people like crazy for my current work. It’s set in the 1960s and I’ve found a wealth of information from folks who lived in the town where the story is set through a Facebook group and I’ve interviewed a couple of Vietnam vets.

  10. I will be training with a Medieval Martial Arts Master on the art of swordsmanship. I won’t be doing the long sword, but have a nice 4 1/2 pound ditty. Developing the upper torso strength is a killer, especially the shoulders. He also choreographs fight scenes for major films. Hopefully I’ll come out of it in one piece, and with some stunning scenes. Thank goodness for fantasy, since maybe only a handful of women picked up the sword. Rayne does have good information.

        1. I think it is completely legendary. If I had access to that type of thing, I’d totally be doing it. I’d love to know what it feels like both physically and emotionally to do some of the things we write about in action sequences. I look forward to hearing more about your experience 😀

  11. Yes indeed, Melissa, we all need a ‘getting it right’ reminder every now and again. Even the so called ‘established, bestselling authors’ need reminding. Just yesterday I was reading Stephen King’s recent release, ‘Doctor Sleep’, he really had me sucked in there with some brilliant storytelling, but then, on page 327, he had his protagonist, Dan, ‘flicking off the Glock’s safety with his thumb.’ Aahh no, Stephen, the Glock doesn’t have an external thumb safety catch!

    1. It’s funny when a fact is wrong that it jumps out and bites you. I always want to avoid that for my readers. I want them so immersed in my story that don’t come out of it until they read: THE END

  12. I joined an antique clocks group in LinkedIn and asked for advice about some items I wanted my starship captain to possess and be working on as a hobby. They were very helpful. I named two of the “good” crewmembers after them in thanks.

  13. Great Post, Melissa. One thing you touch on but I want to reiterate, Don’t be afraid to ask! Sure, the local police, doctor, etc will be willing to help, but if you need to reach out further, do it.

    For my upcoming release, The Scorecard, I reached out to the #1 expert in the world on nanotechnologies and Spherical Nucleic Acids and he gladly answered all of my questions and helped me keep the technology real.

    As for your second question, how much is too much? I don’t think you can get too much research, because the more you know the better you are able to develop your characters, scene or just about anything else. However … you don’t have to put all that detail into showing people how much you know about the subject.

    1. I think your last comment is key, Jim. Sometimes when I have all this info, I have to resist the temptation to overload the reader, feeling like I have to include all this stuff I now know. It’s all about including what you need to sell it as reality to your reader.

Comments are closed.