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Research Smesearch

I have to admit that I sometimes avoid research like the plague. I've had a few of those moments where a good idea comes along, and my next thought after “cool” is “too much research”. The two factors in whether or not I want to do it are:

  1. Does the topic or area of research interest me?
  2. Do I know how to find the information I'm looking for?

The littlest things can trip up an author when writing about a world they're not intimately familiar with. It's one of the reasons I really want to go to a shooting range. Not only to be able to write from personal experience about weapons, but because I may notice something I'd never thought of.

On the other hand, if we all wrote only what we knew, there probably wouldn't be very many books getting published. Who wants to read about a former manufacturing engineer who runs errands, works out, helps with homework, and writes all day?


In the end, I do a lot more research than I think I'm going to, and sometimes it's all for naught if a scene or scenario gets cut, but I choose topics I want to know more about. I'm currently writing books about DEA agents. I read books about going undercover, I watch documentaries and the DEA TV series, and look a lot of stuff up on the Internet.

I don't think I've ever even met a DEA agent, but I do happen to have a helpful source who used to work as a cop assigned to a DEA task force. Without him, I wouldn't have any confidence that I could pull this off.

I hope that any errors I make are small enough to be forgiven by the few who would recognize them, and that it won't jar them from the story too much.

We've all probably found errors in a book we've read or movie we've seen, but what I hate are the blatant errors where the writer or director just said “screw reality”. Like in Transformers 2 where Shia and company go into the Udvar-Hazy Air and Space Museum in Dulles, Virginia to find the ancient Decepticon, Jetfire (the SR-71). They run through the hangar doors right out into the airplane boneyard in Tucson, Arizona. WTF?

SR-71 at Udvar-Hazy Museum

Jetfire at the Boneyard

That wasn't an accident, that was blatant in my mind. Even if you were only familiar with one of those locations–I happen to be the perfect storm of a movie viewer who has lived in both areas–I think you'd know something was up. If they'd explained it, by saying he teleported them there, I'd have been fine with it. Maybe that part was left on the cutting room floor…

As a writer, it's all in the details. If we pull the reader out of the story with those types of mistakes too many times, they'll quit coming back for more. In this competitive market, we can't afford to skip the research.

Can you think of any book or movie mistakes that really irked you?

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  1. Reply

    What bothers me about the Udvar-Hazy Museum is like all the other ‘Smithsonian’s’ it’s free to everyone. However, unlike all the other Smithsonian’s you have no choice but to park in their own parking lot at $12 a pop. Sorry, for my vent take over! I liked the museum but was always troubled by the $12 to get in unless you walked the 20 miles from the District.
    Oh and the Transformers franchise stinks, except for #2 Megan Fox was worth price of admission. 🙂 but maybe because I’m a guy.

    • Reply

      The parking fee is definitely annoying. They do have a free shuttle from the Air & Space museum in DC, but that would have been stupid for us since we lived even further west.

      Cool fact: if you visited the museum on the day(s) they were filming, your parking was paid for by Dreamworks to make up for the areas you wouldn’t be able to visit.

  2. Reply

    Can you imagine how long the shuttle would be to take you from downtown to the museum and then back? Holy smokes. That’s an 8 hour day for one museum. I did like the shuttle at that museum though, pretty cool.

    Cool fact: if Megan Fox would have told me when they were filming I would have gladly paid $12. I’m starting to think I have a thing for Megan Fox.

    Oh well, back to my self help book: “eat yourself skinny”

  3. Reply

    I think it was Janet Evanovich…yes, it was,….who went on a YEAR LONG research project to learn about bail bonds, police procedure, etc…all I can say is wow, and at the same time think about what character I can create who I’d want to DO that kind of research for…and who can sustain how many books???

    Cause then, then you have best seller material.

    I feel like a slacker. LOL. I write paranormal…so I just have to make it SEEM real 😉

    • Reply

      Sybir: It’s exhausting just thinking about it. Most of us aren’t going to write 15+ novels about the same character either.

      I think even paranormal requires some research. You have to know your mythological history so to speak. Readers of that genre have expectations about the types of beings and creatures you create unless you’re coming up with something no one’s ever heard of. I could never write serious paranormal without a lot of background reading first. Don’t sell yourself short.

  4. Reply

    It was Janet Evanovich in one of her last couple books. Not sure which one. Anyway, it was toward the end of the book. It was a plot problem not a fact problem.

    She needed to separate miss P. from Mor. the cop at a time when there was no real reason for them to walk, run or jog in different directions. In fact the opposite was true. So, with no foreshadowing and out of no where, other than a contrived event that delivered the desired and what seemed designed and forced result, this pack of dogs rounds the corner and she had them both split in opposite directions.

    Now that is just something I noticed. There is no way a lady in strappy sandals is ever going to urk me. Never. 🙂 i guess its about steam and a little resolution and stuff like that. Plot stuff.

    • Reply

      Curtis: Good point. I’m always struggling to find plot devices that don’t seem to contrived. Although usually for me, I’m trying to get the characters together! 😉

  5. Christine


    Research is NOT my forte, but I do research the careers of my hero/heroines as best I can. I need to get into a radio station again and see how things work. I went to a shooting range, outside, and it was so much fun. I don’t know if I will get to keep one of the scenes I used as a result, but I’m glad I got to be Annie Oakly for a day.

    • Reply

      Christine: I hate putting good research in the Unused Scenes pile, but on the other hand it all lends itself to understanding the world we’re building. It may come back in another place or another book.

  6. Reply

    I’m with you. I base all my research decisions on whether it is something I want to know. That in itself helps trim on all the information that could bog me down… 🙂

    And I am one of the poor souls who had no idea that the scene in Transformers was askew. *sigh*

    • Reply

      Martha: I’m betting most people had no idea. My husband should have noticed, but I don’t think he really cared. I’m just weird that way.

  7. KM Fawcett


    I was having problems with my first chapter because my heroine had a Too Stupid To Live moment because I needed a situation to happen. Needless to say, I was getting rejected by agents/editors. Once I contacted a few law enforcement officers at a national forest, they gave me all kinds of wonderful info and details that would make my situation work and believable. I rewrote the first chapter and submitted again and received 2 requests for fulls. Lesson learned!

    • Reply

      Kathy: What a great story! I keep reading that the plot can and should come from the characters, not from what we *need* to happen. It’s easier said than done, but knowing our stuff definitely helps.

      I got a few of those reality checks from my source too. Very helpful.

      And congrats on the requests! Good luck.

  8. Tony


    Was just thinking about locations and research. Last few books I’ve read, had been to at least three places mentioned in the first 100 pages of each. And this happens a lot. And TV too. When Lenny on Law and Order said the murder was on 6th next to the Van Wyck, or the CSI guys say Whitestone, Lucus Davinport is in Bemidji, or Kinsey Millhome in Santa Teresa (fictionalized Santa Barbara) or Dave Robicheaux talks about New Iberia, Louisiana, I’ve been to all of them.!! And here I come and, Udvar-Hazy Air and Space Museum in Dulles, Virginia, LOL, been there, done that. Actually saw a WWI plane there similar to one my great-grandfather flew in France. Was cool,,,,,

    But write about a location? Can never seem to find the soul/core of a place after I’ve stayed there for a while. Have to research every time.. Think it is better to see it fresh than after you’ve become jaded to the individuality of a place.

    Now, toys? Hoo!!! Look up a T-Rex 14RR with a 500 horsepower stage three mod with an aero gull-wing body (Bat-mobile like three wheeler) or a tail rotor-less helicopter, the MD600N, I AM in heaven!!! Or an ancient organization, love it!!

    • Reply

      I think books, movies, and TV shows are always fun when you know the location. I especially enjoyed the Kinsey Millhone books once I had lived 80 miles north of Santa Barbara and spent a fair amount of time down there. And I read Q is for Quarry while living in Santa Maria (so I could picture everything).

      Writing about a location is really hard. For some reason I find San Diego to be so much simpler to write about than DC, even though I lived in VA longer. DC is such a complex place with so many discrete areas and political/government undercurrents that I don’t know well or understand. But, yeah, you can get immune to the lure of a place. Maybe that’s the benefit of moving so much. I’m always eager to explore.

  9. Tony


    I liked that old 80s TV series where a group of cowboys are hit by lightning, ride up a hill and see modern day Houston TX in the distance, skyscrapers and all. Only problems are, I can’t think of a singe hill in Houston that they could have ridden up and when they got to the top of this hill, Houston was laid out in front of them but with a Rocky Mountains like mountain range jutting up behind the city. Now anyone who’s been to Houston knows, there ain’t no mountains anywhere near that city!!! Nada!! Land is flat as a board. I was gonna say Popeye’s love Olive Oyl but decided to be discrete….

    And Science Fiction movies are generally riddled with errors that would have been simple to research and easy to correct. Drives me nuts..

    • Reply

      This is exactly the kind of thing I was thinking about. Back in the early 90s there was a CBS late-night show called SILK STALKINGS. It was set in Florida (I want to say West Palm Beach), but it was filmed in San Diego. This was when I lived there. Every time they showed the skyline, I thought, “Duh. Anyone who knows this city is going to recognize the cluster of buildings with hexagonal green neon outlines.”

      Olive Oyl. You’re bad. *snicker*

      • Tony


        I liked that show!!! Never noticed the San Diego connection. I did run around while they were filming Robocop in Houston. No Robo but lots of cops……

        • Reply

          I wouldn’t have noticed if I hadn’t been living there at the time. I liked that show too. I actually tried to be an extra, but I never got called.

          The closest I’ve been to seeing something filmed is when I saw Charlie Sheen at a health club in Tucson while he was filming Major League. I didn’t realize it was him until later (was behind him at the snack bar), but I had been trying to figure out what school his letterman’s jacket was from. Turns out it was from the movie Red Dawn.

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