RESEARCHING the WRONG SIDE
Creating that "Real" Fictional World
For me, good reading is when the author has created a fictional world so real I can for the moment be there, live in it, feel the emotions of the characters inhabiting that world, recognize the twists and turns as part of this new world, whether it is patterned after a real place and time, or a totally created place.. Research is key to creating that world, making it so realistic that the reader accepts it for what you, the author, suggests it can be. For my style of writing, I have found my local Sheriff's Office a wonderful source of information, to the point of attending events and joining associations offering presentations by law enforcement officials.
Do you know what a ghillie suit is? Can you describe busting in a drug dealer’s door and the person next to you getting shot in the forehead? Know how to negotiate with a kidnapper and rescue a car-jack hostage? Can you describe a weapon and how it operates?
Good fiction has a basis - somewhere - in fact. Locales, climate, dress, customs, all influence setting. Language, dialect and speech patterns, along with physical characteristics, define the outward appearance of characters, assisted by body language, habitual behavior and emotional reactions for the internal characterization.
Writing fact? Then the need for research is obvious.
Writing fiction? How does this huge body of information affect a fiction writer?
Fiction authors are liars. To get readers to suspend belief and buy into the author’s (hopefully entertaining) lies, the author must create an alternate world, one so realistic that the reader is willing to accept it as reality - at least for a little while. Using facts and descriptions garnered from research and personal experience, an author builds this alternate world using familiar ways and realistic settings, recreating a universe that may be different from “real” reality, but so good that the reader wants it to be the real one. I am a graduate of the Pasco Sheriff Citizens Police Academy and at least know what is ghillie suit is, the general procedures for hostage negotiations, and, most importantly, played a little catch with Swift, a K9 member of the Office - bonding, I hope.
You also have extensive personal experience, some more than others. The key here is if you have kept a journal (written, photographic, or a combination) of your experiences so they can be drawn from and used to create your “new” world... or have a remarkable memory.
By and large accurate memories of personal experience is the best reference, because they includes tastes, smells, all the tangible and physical sensations, but also are enriched by the intangible emotions evoked by events and personal interaction with other people and cultures.
But what if you haven’t been there, done that?
Now it’s time to turn to the Internet and the reference books. The locale descriptions in my thriller Desert Winds were based primarily on personal experience, (NSA, the Pentagon, Egypt, Saudi, nukes, missiles) but also on satellite imagery of Iraq (Irbil) and maps (Bashur airfield, Sinjar Mountains). Sure, I relied on personal memories from time spent in the Middle East to describe cultural attitudes, but also dug deeply into T. E. Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom for details of geography for places I have not been and historical events that happened before my time.
I recently researched a new thriller set on the Florida west coast, justifying a dive into local law enforcement procedures, boating, fishing, migrant communities, retired Greyhounds; all the elements I want to bring into the new story in such a way that a reader from one of these communities will read and say, “Si, es verdad.” My new-found knowledge of local law enforcement hopefully will keep a local cop from throwing the book down in disgust - or Swift from biting my butt.
Everything does not have to be factual, just believable. Look closely - a sniper lurks in the pile of brush. Be nice and Swift the patrol dog will sit quietly in the kindergarten class, but, teeth bared, tear into a bad guy on command. All facts from real life that may make your pretend universe real for your new friends.
Writers' best friends - I call them readers!