Please contact E. B. Davis at for information on guest blogs and interviews. Interviews for August: (8/3) Dianne Freeman (8/10) Daryl Wood Gerber (8/17) E. B. Davis's Review of Granite Oath, James M. Jackson's new novel (8/24) Rose Kerr (8/31) V. M. Burns.

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Moving Beyond The Research: A guest blog by Clea Simon

One of the great joys of writing fiction is the freedom to create. We invent characters and then build the worlds for them to inhabit. We throw them into impossible situations, and then we find a wormhole for them to crawl out of. Unlike journalists or other nonfiction writers, we get to simply make stuff up.

However, to give our characters and their worlds verisimilitude, we have to do our research. For while we are spinning tales, we want them to be believed. We need them to be believable. That means if you place your hero in a real city, you can’t have him skip from one part of town to another in an unrealistic time frame. If you kill someone with a particular poison, you should make her final agonies realistic – and that means knowing just what spasms (or whatever) that particular alkali would provoke.

In crime fiction, particularly, we have to know how to kill people. We have to know our guns (if we use them) and our poisons (ditto). Few things will turn readers against a mystery writer than a mistake in something that is more or less easily checkable. And that’s as it should be. Fiction works when the reader can believe in it, when the reader can suspend disbelief and hand over her or his trust to the writer.

That doesn’t mean that we are bound by the physical world, or by the results of our research. If anything, research best serves as a starting point to show us processes – how things work. Once we understand those step-by-step processes, then it is often incumbent on us to move beyond research and reality. And that’s where the fun comes in.

In other words, no matter how fanciful our characters, we have to ground them in reality – of a sort. Does your heroine turn into a butterfly? At least have a working knowledge of pupae and metamorphosis.

This is of interest to me, because I write books with cats in them, and the cats have certain capabilities. In my new book, The Ninth Life, the feline narrator observes things that his human counterpart doesn’t. Of course, I based this on what I know of cats – of their superior senses of smell and hearing, of the way they can read the air. (I have written one nonfiction book and numerous articles on cats.) If I want readers to believe in Blackie, my sentient cat, I needed to make him, first, a believable cat.

This holds true even for smaller details: I have a drug, which I’ve called “scat,” in the book. I liked the play on the cat term – and also the term for animal dung – and modeled both its effects, manufacture, and usage on several drugs: crack cocaine and methamphetamine. It is neither, and, really, it’s a small part of the book. But when Blackie’s sensitive nose shrinks back at an acrid burning smell, I want that smell to be right.  Because my readers are not cats, and they are probably not addicted to drugs. But for a moment, I want them to believe they could be. I want to have gotten it right.

Simon is the Boston Globe-bestselling author of 19 traditional/cozy mysteries in the Theda Krakow, Dulcie Schwartz, and Pru Marlowe pet noir series, most recently Code Grey (Severn House) and When Bunnies Go Bad (Poisoned Pen). In March, her 20th mystery, The Ninth Life (Severn), launched the Blackie and Care series. A former journalist, Clea lives in Massachusetts. Although her books are getting darker, they still always include a cat. She’s not sure why.


Warren Bull said...

The problem with research is that it is so easy to become involved in what you find that you wander around in it for a long time and forget why you started it.

KM Rockwood said...

Yes, Warren, I know exactly what your mean! Three hours later, well into my writing time window, I will look up and realize I've spent it reading things on the internet, many of which have nothing to do with my original question.

Clea, I agree with you completely on the need to be "believable" and consistent in our stories. Readers are willing to suspend belief when we ask them to, but then the story needs to continue in a fashion that follows that premise, not asks them to continually modify it.

Margaret S. Hamilton said...

I enjoy doing research, and fuss and fret distilling what I've learned into a plot, just enough to keep the story moving. I need to learn a lot about a new field before I feel confident writing about it. So most of the results of my research live in a file instead of on a printed page.

Gloria Alden said...

I understand getting sucked into the research, but although I'll do it for my books if necessary, I do more of it for my blogs. For my books I chose a location I've lived in my whole life only creating a small fictional town like others in my area. I have cats in my books and dogs, too. Both animals I have for pets.

I totally agree with you Clea, that if you're going to write about a place or something you're not familiar with it's very important to do research.