How Much Research?

By Bob McCrillis

In a talk she gave, Anna Quindlen claimed that she only does as much research as is convenient. That’s quite a statement.

My first thought was, “Sure, if you’re already a best-selling author.” A reader told her that getting from Miami to Tampa in three hours by car was impossible, she replied, “Not in my Florida.”

Yay! I don’t have to bother with inconsistencies and impossibilities. Well, maybe not so fast. I remember a person complaining that the book he was reading wasn’t accurate. It seems that he was familiar with Paris, where the story took place, and the places and street names were all wrong. “It ruined the whole book for me,” he grumbled.

We’ve already established that I’m lazy. Again paraphrasing Ms. Quindlen, my major activity in any day is ‘not writing’. Any easier task that I can disguise as writing draws me like flies to honey. I’ve even volunteered to do yard work!

As a card-carrying nerd, I love to do research — especially now that we have Google. I’m spared the effort of schlepping to the library and actually searching for books. And, there are so many fascinating byways to explore. It’s more fun than reading the dictionary. (I said I was a nerd.)

Justifying the time I spend wandering through Wikipedia entries is easy. Too easy. The hours spent on research could be better spent writing. Correcting inconsistencies is what you do after you have a complete draft.

I’ve found that I need to know only enough to be plausible before I start writing. As issues come up, it’s back to Google. One of my characters registered voters in the summer of 1965. The drive was led by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

In re-writing the first draft, I discovered that Freedom Summer was in 1964. And it was the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee that coordinated it. Oh, and the Congress of Racial Equality recruited the kids who went down south.

So what? I had to fix my timeline but the important scenes remained.

I’ve read that John Grisham drafted a recent novel set at the law school at Princeton. Only later did he discover that Princeton doesn’t have a law school and moved it to Yale. To me, this means that ‘fix it afterwards’ is an acceptable approach.

There are lots of right ways of doing most things. Inventing details allows me to press forward focused on getting a decent draft. A friend of mine said that she could fix bad writing but no one could fix a blank page. You can always refine and correct the details while cleaning up all the other flaws in your draft.

There are a couple of areas that I do try to make sure I get right the first time, cars and guns. There are too many car and gun nuts out there to take a chance on a mistake slipping through. In The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Larsen puts a .45 magnum pistol in the hands of Lisbeth’s rapist. Later one of the killers contemptuously describes it as a cowboy gun. He was describing a Ruger Blackhawk .44 magnum — there is no such thing as a .45 magnum.

Europeans are less familiar with firearms, I assume. Yet, every mention of the pistol was fingernails on a blackboard for me.  In the first draft, the error didn’t matter, the action was breathtaking. It would have been easy to fix in rewrite but it wasn’t.

That’s the weakness of my system. Mistakes might end up in the final manuscript. (I can always correct flaws in the second edition.) For me, that’s worth avoiding the time trap of an endless search for perfect information.

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3 thoughts on “How Much Research?

  1. Thank you Madeline. I have fun writing these silly things. But as these thoughts occur, I wonder if anyone else has them. Then I wonder if I’ve lost my mind.

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  2. Did you know my father’s WWII memoirs “From Cobbs Creek to the Rhine, My Struggles in WWII, 1942-1945” by Harry J. Houldin (On Amazon) were successfully published by the Pearl Buck Writing Center. Anne and Linda were great to work with..I certainly learned a good deal about publishing, “The Courier Times” and
    “The Intell” ran my story on Father’s Day…I made the front page! An Atlanta newspaper picked it up. I am so excited that I finally fulfilled a lifetime dream. All the best with your stories and books yet to be. Have a wonderful summer.

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