Thursday, March 24, 2011

How Important is Research in a Novel? by Brad Taylor

Ask twenty different authors what they think about the relative importance of research for a novel, and you’ll get twenty different opinions. On one side of the scale, some will say it’s irrelevant and that people read for good writing, not good research, and that water-tight fact-finding will never overcome bad prose.

I’m on the other side of the scale. Yes, the writing comes first, but nailing the details only adds to the effect. There is no downside. Not bothering to conduct rudimentary research into the subject matter, in my mind, is insulting to the reader. It smacks of laziness, especially if the reader has some grasp of the subject. In fact, as a reader myself I can only get so far in a book if the information blatantly conflicts with the facts that I know. I’m not asking anyone to be an expert, but at least show me you can find Wikipedia. Or buy a Guns and Ammo magazine. I’ll forgive almost anything if the author shows me he tried.

Because of this, I’m rabid about research. The knowledge base I gained from my previous career is absolutely essential as a starting point, but I don’t have an encyclopedic memory. Suffice it to say, I have to do an enormous amount of fact checking, from something as minute as how long a certain flight would take and the time-zones involved to whether a particular weapon fires from the open-bolt position. Invariably, whenever I try to wing it based on my memory and experiences alone, I find out I’m wrong. I’ve learned to fact-check just about everything. Luckily, if I can’t find the answer on my own, odds are very good that I know someone who can.

There is a trap with this, and I’ve fallen into it more times than I can count, and that is you want to show off the research you’ve done, babbling on about interesting but irrelevant tidbits, with the plot suffering as a result. I’ve just come to understand that out of all the research I do, only about two percent will make it into the book. Especially when talking about locations.

I’m a little bit of a perfectionist when it comes to real-world settings, and I research them relentlessly. I’ve traveled all over the world, which is a good thing when I want to describe a setting, but make no mistake; I have to really study locations to get them right. For example, I’ve been to both Central and South America, but I have never been to Guatemala or Belize, major settings in One Rough Man. I had to research both forever, and ultimately didn’t use 99% of what I found. In the end I’m sure that someone who’s actually spent some time there will find flaws in my descriptions. I’m okay with that, because I gave it my best shot.

When I have the ability to do first-hand research, I do so. The Atlanta airport scene is a pretty good example of that. Basically, Jennifer and Pike get stopped at customs and have to break out of the secondary interrogation facility. I tried to write how they would evade capture, and escape what’s become one of the most secure areas since 9/11, using my own recollection of the airport. When I was done, I realized that I really didn’t know enough about the security of the airport, and that the way I had written it was a little hokey. I have been through that airport probably 500 times, but I’d never looked at the security from an evasion standpoint. One thing I was convinced of, though, was they weren’t going to escape by using normal passenger corridors. I called up some pilot friends of mine and proposed a simple question: how can I get out of the Atlanta airport without going the usual passenger route? They gave me the breakdown of what crew members do, to include locations of employee lounges and employee bus routes. From there, I simply flew to the airport and retraced Pike and Jennifer’s steps from customs, noting the security in place such as cameras, alarms, and checkpoints. After casing the place it was pretty easy to figure out how they could do it.

Since I’m not independently wealthy, I couldn’t afford to do what I did with the Atlanta scene for the scenes in Bosnia, Oslo, or Guatemala. In those cases, I had to rely on the internet, my memory and friends with specialized knowledge. There’s a military phrase called Open Source Intelligence, which basically means, “read the paper and see what you can find out”. In today’s times, that means the internet, and it’s amazing what’s out there, from airport databases and flikr, to Google Earth and 360cities. Surprisingly, my favorite source is a blog from backpacking college students. Those folks go everywhere, and talk about everything from security at border crossings to the best way to get a taxi, complete with pictures. Suffice to say, just about anything can be found if one looks hard enough.

For instance, I’ve been inside the White House situation room – once – but I’m certainly not well versed on the White House floor plan, something I needed to be if Kurt was going to keep seeing the president. Obviously, getting in and stomping around the president’s personal space was problematic. Luckily, there’s an entire website dedicated to the history of the White House, complete with the floor plan through the years and photos.

I try to do that with any scene I write, but I’ll be honest, if I need something, I’ll create it. For instance, the Four Courts pub where Pike is ambushed is a real location in Clarendon, Virginia. The streets around it are accurate, as are the Metro stops to get there. I cased that area as well, trying to figure out how I would ambush Pike (and get a Guinness at the pub). I planned the ambush realistically, but added an alley to the left of the pub. It doesn’t exist in real life, but it does in my book. I know that sounds hypocritical, but I did this because in the end the writing does come first. The alley was critical to the story.

I’ll fake things for reasons other than the story as well. Writers without my background can guess how widget X works, and if they get it right everyone wonders how they got the information. My problem is the opposite: I do know how things work, and most of that knowledge is classified, so I have to spend a lot of time tempering what I know when I write, even if it seems mundane. For instance, I’m currently working on a scene for book two where terrorists attack an Army Ammunition Supply Point. I traveled to and studied the ASP, then simply wrote how I would hit it to get to the ammunition inside. After I was done, I read it and thought, “What the hell are you doing? You’ve just written a blueprint on how to attack a U.S. Federal facility!” My insider knowledge, coupled with my tactical skill set, had made it too real. I had to go back and throw in some red herrings. I know I’ll get dinged on that by someone with the same knowledge as me, saying, “That would never work,” but that’s the point.

In the end, I fall on the “research” bandwagon, although I realize there’s no way I’m going to be perfect. Mistakes will happen, no matter how much research I do, and I want to kick myself when that occurs, but it’s just the way of writing. Pike steals a Chevy Cutlass in Guatemala City to escape, and after all of the research on the city itself, I’m told by an advanced copy reader – after I’d blessed the final manuscript – that Chevrolet didn’t make the Cutlass. Oldsmobile did.

Mistakes like that don’t make me throw my hands up at the futility of it all, because I owe it to the reader. My cut-line on real versus make-believe is the story itself. If you make something up for the purposes of the plot, knowing it’s wrong, and it makes the story stronger, then you’ve enhanced the enjoyment of the reader. On the other hand, using the story as an excuse for a lack of research is really just a shortcut – and the reader will know it. Maybe not all readers will care, but even if only one does, you’ve failed.

Brad Taylor, Lieutenant Colonel (ret.), is a twenty-one-year veteran of the U.S. Army Infantry and Special Forces, including eight years with the 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment-Delta, popularly known as Delta Force. He retired in 2010 and now lives in Charleston, SC with his wife and two daughters. For more information visit him online at


Tracey Devlyn said...

Hi Brad,

Thanks so much for blogging with us today.

Being a historical writer, I struggle with finding the right balance of research every day. Amongst many other historical facts, selecting something as small as the right time specific word like "corridor" versus "hallway" is a constant. I spend a lot of time on the online etymology dictionary looking up word origins.

It's tedious, but, like you, I want my manuscript to be a close to perfect as possible. Will I miss something? Yep. But I won't miss it in the next book.

Thanks again for joining us!

Karen Dionne said...

Fascinating post, Brad. I particularly liked your comment that you'll add details to the scene, like that non-existent alley, if you need them. I did onsite research for my second novel set at an erupting volcano in Northern Patagonia, Chile, and for the sake of the story, added a second north-south road through the area on the other side of the volcano. I also shortened the eruption's time frame (the lahar that ruined the village at the town's base happened 10 days after the initial eruption; in my story, it happens the same day).

I sent my guide a copy of the finished novel via a volcanologist who's visiting Chaiten as we speak (still no mail delivery in the ruined town, so I was glad to find someone who could hand-carry it!) along with a note to please forgive my changes. Hey - it's fiction!

Joelle Charbonneau said...

What a fabulous post. The line you walk between the knowledge you have the knowledge you can use is fascinating. And I truly believe that great research enhances every story. Often it is through research that we come up with the best and more interesting plot ideas.

Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts.

Lynn Sheene said...

I'm with you Brad, on the research bandwagon. Research means the details that enliven the story are at my fingertips and it allows me to write with an authority that helps make the story world believable. Not to mention what Joelle said - research helps me to come up with plot ideas I never could have imagined.

Thanks for the post!

Nancy Naigle said...

Great blog, Brad. I really enjoyed it. Sometimes the research is so much fun I have to make myself switch gears and get back to the writing task at hand. :) I like learning something new along the journey.

Thanks for sharing. Best wishes to you and your family in lovely Charleston, SC (one of my favorite cities!)

Lisa Brackmann said...

I'm definitely about the prose, but I was also a film/TV researcher in another life (okay, they don't always listen to us), and research is extremely important to me. If I read a book that deals with something I know about, and the author makes obvious mistakes, it takes me right out of the story. I assume I'm not the only reader who reacts that way...

I've made my share of them in spite of my efforts, and it always pains me when I find out I've screwed something up.

Really loved this post, Brad -- especially the part about attacking the ammo dump, and the dilemma that posed for you!

Tracy March said...

Hi, Brad. Count me in as a research devotee! Yet I admit that sometimes I go down a research rabbit hole and end up in places I never thought I would.

Wherever research leads, I always learn something. Perhaps that something is relative to my work-in-progress, to future work, or to party conversation, but I'm always happy to have inventory to pull from!

Speaking of...I have an entire file on Charleston from a visit I had there several years ago. What a wonderful city! I simply love the Battery...all the beautiful gardens and wroght-iron gates. Have some shrimp and grits for me!

Rochelle Staab said...

Hi Brad,
Great post! Count me in on the Pro-Research team. I love getting my hands dirty in the setting field. And I find I get the added dimension of other sensory impressions when I'm in the field that I can't get through Google.

One of my favorite topics.

M.E. said...


This was a tremendous post - I have also used research as a barrier to starting my long-term projects. I immerse myself in the process of learning, and I want to share everything I learned with the reader. Tempering my ambitious babbling is key.