Research and the Muse

by Nancy J. Cohen

A reader at one of my author talks recently said she was surprised by how much research I did for my books. She believed fiction writers made up their stories. I was appalled. No wonder some people (not YOU, of course) look down their noses at popular fiction writers. Any author would be dismayed by this observation because we put a lot of work into researching our tales.

As any reader of historical fiction knows, the writer must thoroughly research all details of the era in order to be accurate. Ditto for mysteries. I get people asking me all the time if I had been a hairdresser because my sleuth’s job details are so accurate. When I mention that my background is in nursing, they are astounded. How did you learn enough to write about a hairstylist who solves crimes for your Bad Hair Day series? Well, I interviewed my hairdresser and followed her around the salon. I visited a beauty school and checked out their curriculum. I attended a beauty trade show in Orlando. I subscribed to Modern Salon Magazine. And if I needed to know anything else about hair, I asked my hairstylist or had her read relevant passages in my manuscript for accuracy.

That’s just the beginning. Consider that I also consult a homicide detective for crime details and police procedure, even if forensics doesn’t play a heavy role in my books. Plus each story has its own topics to research. I’ve investigated such diverse subjects as medical waste disposal, tilapia farming, migrant labor smuggling, the dog and cat fur trade, vanilla bean cultivation, and more. Then there is on-site research, i.e. pounding the pavement in Mount Dora to get street details, skulking through a Turkish Bath in my swimsuit, getting a reading from a medium in Cassadaga. I take very detailed notes and photos to use in crafting my story.

Authors who use contemporary settings cannot make things up out of thin air. Besides the location, we may need to research pertinent issues to include in our stories. I always try to include a Florida based issue or something of universal interest (like Alzheimer’s Disease) to give my stories added depth. Newspapers, magazines, the Internet, personal interviews, and on-site visits are just some of the techniques we use. Probably the most fun I’ve had for research was going on a couple of cruises for Killer Knots. I challenge you to fault any of my minute details in that adventure.

But what about the vampire and werewolf fiction out there now, and other paranormal stories? Don’t those authors just make up their imaginary worlds? No, because these worlds must be consistent, and they’re often based on mythology or early Earth cultures.

For example, my proposed paranormal series is based on Norse myths. I have several texts on the subject and took extensive notes so I can understand their creation theory. I wrote down the different gods and goddesses, because they play a part in my story as well. For this tale as well as Silver Serenade, my upcoming futuristic romance, I needed to name spaceships, weapons, and/or military personnel. Using the Internet to look up ranks in our own military gave me a model. I also have a collection of Star Trek and Star Wars Sourcebooks which are great inspiration for weaponry, ships, propulsion and such. So even for fantasy, research is necessary. Science fiction is even more exacting because you’re extrapolating what might be plausible in the future or exaggerating a current issue from the news.

So please have more respect for fiction writers. We do extensive research, and a truly gifted writer will not let it show because you’ll be swept into the story. A good work of fiction is like a stage show, with all the blood and sweat and tears going on behind the scenes. All the audience sees is the fabulous performance.

Nancy J. Cohen
Killer Knots: A Bad Hair Day Mystery
Silver Serenade: Coming soon from The Wild Rose Press

12 replies
  1. Terry Odell
    Terry Odell says:

    I did read a book recently where the author stated up front that "No police officers had been consulted in the writing of this book, and that it was intended to be a fun read."

    That was a switch. Just yesterday, I had lunch with a homicide detective to make sure I got the police procedures right in my book. (And I picked up the tab.)

    People notice errors. The hardest parts of research are:

    1) Knowing what you don't know so you take the time to look it up. I've had some surprises when crit partners have pointed out things I'd never considered researching — like the fact that one make and model car I'd used didn't come with the option of a manual transmission, and I'd given it one so my heroine couldn't drive it and escape. And how many times have you read characters thumbing the safety off a Glock?

    2) Understanding that even when you're right, readers will think you're wrong if it's not the way it works on TV.

  2. Susan McBride
    Susan McBride says:

    Nancy, great post! It never fails that, no matter how careful I am about everything in my books, I inevitably miss something, which will eventually be pointed out to me by a diligent reader once the book hits the shelves. When BLUE BLOOD was released in 2004, I was already living in St. Louis and went back to Big D to do some talks. Someone raised their hand at one and mentioned I had an exit on a Dallas tollway that wasn't there. I felt like a dope. Then the exit was actually built–nice of them, huh? Funny how things work out sometimes. 😉

    Thanks for guesting today!


  3. Nancy J. Cohen
    Nancy J. Cohen says:

    Susan, thanks for asking me. I'm delighted to talk to your blog readers. And yes, Terry, invariably a reader will point out the faults. For my mysteries, that was a good thing because then I could correct the mistake for the paperback version. We don't usually have that luxury.

  4. Marilyn Meredith a.k.a. F. M. Meredith
    Marilyn Meredith a.k.a. F. M. Meredith says:

    Fun post–I think you've done some marvelous research and bet it was fun too.

    I've gone on ride-alongs, belong to Public Safety Writers Association where I can easily ask any number of law enforcement folks any question I want–and still get it wrong at times.

    I write about real places with fictional names–recognizable to those who know the places, but I don't run into trouble with businesses disappearing before the books comes out.

    So glad you could join us today.


  5. Nancy J. Cohen
    Nancy J. Cohen says:

    Thanks, Marilyn. I haven't done ride alongs but I did attend Citizens Police Academy. Very educational.

  6. Alyssa Maxwell
    Alyssa Maxwell says:

    People sometimes comment to me that they love reading historicals but don't want to write one because of all the research involved (which I personally love doing). Nancy, you totally just debunked the notion that contemporaries are any easier to write!

  7. Mary Ricksen
    Mary Ricksen says:

    I want to know what the medium said? Anything relevant?
    And it's even harder to do research when you can't go to the source. It's a hard job to find the information you need to be accurate!
    Great blog Nancy, I really understand this one!

  8. Kathy
    Kathy says:

    Nancy so true that is how I actually found RWA to begin with was researching for a historical story I was working on. I wanted to be fairly accurate and for it to be believable. I'm trying my hand at two contemporary things now. Because of research and time with work I often shy away from contemporary because I don't have time to research it. Believe me I don't feel the young women I see coming in and out of the convenience store where I work represent a true 21st century female..

  9. Nancy J. Cohen
    Nancy J. Cohen says:

    Allison, I'd rather research a contemporary site than a historical one any day. You not only have to get the locale right, but the customs, dress, manners, etc. Mary, as for what the medium said, read my mystery Died Blonde. I took what the psychic said to me and switched it to my sleuth Marla's viewpoint. And Kathy, no matter what era or genre you write, there's always research. It makes for interesting experiences along the way to publication.

  10. Jodi
    Jodi says:

    Nancy, excellent post. As an editor I emphasize the importance of accurate research, especially, to my new authors, assuring them if there is a flaw, it will undoubtedly be brought to their attention—sometimes not in the kindest manner. I,for one, having been involved in LE vicariously through an ex, take a bit of exception when police protocol is butchered, but I've never "flamed" an author for not doing her research. On the other hand, it does lend a lack of credibility to the book. But a non-existant exit on a Dallas tollway? Who are these people anyway? =)

    Nice blog, Susan!

    Joelle Walker
    The Wild Rose Press

  11. Evan Marshall
    Evan Marshall says:

    Very interesting blog, Nancy! For me, half the fun of a good mystery is learning about something new. My Hidden Manhattan mystery series features a New York Sanitation supervisor, so I've done a lot of fun research into the world of trash, including touring a large garage on the East River and interviewing sanitation personnel. They say we should write about what we know, but if we stuck to that rule we would quickly run out of material. The answer is to add to what you know.

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