Research…Or Not?

By Laura Crum

I hear a lot of authors talking about research. How they love research. How a trip to Europe can be called research and written off on one’s taxes. (That sounds very glamorous.) Sometimes research seems to mean looking things up on the internet…endlessly. (That doesn’t sound so exciting.) I have heard a well-known author say that she never writes about a country that she has not at least flown over in an airplane. (Amusing. But it left a funny taste in my mouth.)

Most recently a book was recommended to me (no, I’m not going to tell you what it was) as being a great story and “meticulously researched”. I bought the book. The underlying story was good, I’ll agree, but the book, which was exceedingly well-padded with all that meticulous research, was a very slow read and I ended up skimming it, thinking all the while, “get back to the story, dammit.” In my view the book was crammed with researched details in order to make it long enough to be a “best seller”. The actual storyline would have been much better served if the book had totaled between 100-200 pages, rather than the 300 the author relentlessly stuffed into it.

The truth is I do not care for obviously researched details in novels. I like a story to flow and not to bog down while the author shows off his/her knowledge of the subject at hand. Particularly a mystery novel.

Don’t get me wrong. I love description. I love detail. I just don’t love the stilted, wordy passages that are simply meant to convey some sort of authenticity. The ones that announce “I looked this up somewhere.” I delight in reading description that comes from the heart and reflects an author’s intimate knowledge of something he/she loves.

People often ask me what sort of research I do for my novels featuring equine veterinarian Gail McCarthy. My answer is that I don’t do research. My life is my research. This isn’t strictly true, of course, and I always have to admit that I do call my childhood friend who is deputy chief of police and pick her brain about what the cops would do under certain circumstances. And I call my old boyfriend who is now a vet and ask about the dosages for certain drugs and whether some concept I have regarding veterinary medicine is really plausible. I also ask him to tell me any interesting veterinary emergencies he’s been on lately. And this information is critical when it comes to writing realistic mystery novels. I’ve been tickled when former cops emailed to congratulate me on describing police procedure correctly, and expressed their irritation at the number of mystery novelists who apparently fail in this respect. And I have been asked numerous times if I’m a vet, quite frequently by veterinarians. So yes, I know research has it place.

But…I object, I actively object, to the notion of an author selecting a subject, or a country, he/she knows nothing about, and using it as a background/locale for a novel. The proverbial country the author has at least “flown over in an airplane” approach. A little internet research and hey presto, said author is an expert on the place or activity. That’s not the sort of novel I want to read. I’m interested in reading “been there, done that” stories written by people who really know the subject/place they are writing about (and are ideally quite passionate about it). I think the difference in the two styles of writing shines as brightly as the difference between night and day.

For me, this means writing about landscapes I know intimately, such as the central California coast and the Sierra Nevada Mountains, rather than setting a novel in Europe (which I visited once for two months and loved—but that’s not a very deep sort of knowledge). It means writing about aspects of the horse biz that I’ve actually participated in (such as cutting and roping and horse packing in the mountains) rather than setting my stories in the hunter/jumper world, say, or on the polo field. Yes, those are interesting and glamorous venues, but I really don’t know much of anything about them. My lifelong passion has been western cowhorses, and I can speak with authority and in accurate detail on this subject, having trained such horses for many years, and been a competitor in several different cowhorse events. Nowadays I mostly trail ride through the local hills, an activity I find fascinating, and these trails provide the backdrop for my latest novel, “Barnstorming”, due out this coming spring.

I’ve ridden the trails in all kinds of weather, in every season of the year. I know them as if they were my backyard, which, in a sense, they are. The steep and tricky switchbacks, the big views over Monterey Bay, the narrow singletracks through the towering redwoods—I’ve ridden them hundreds of times. I’ve met all kinds of strange and interesting things on the trails, from assorted wildlife to scary looking guys with machete in hand, and I’ve incorporated my trail adventures into my novel. So there you go, life as research.

Below you see my son and myself on an autumn trail ride–on the very trails I write about in “Barnstorming.” Of course, even more exciting things happen in the book than have happened to us in real life.

Here I’m looking at the Monterey Bay—past my horse’s ears. (This view is featured in “Barnstorming” and my last book, “Going, Gone.”) Its one of my favorite spots.

What about the veterinary stuff, people ask me. The sad truth is that if you’ve owned horses non-stop for almost forty years, as I have, you’ve acquired a vast amount of veterinary knowledge. Horses are always having some problem or other, be it lameness or colic, or some odd injury. My husband calls it the “five horse” rule. Something is wrong with a horse at least 20% of the time, and if you have five horses or more, that means something is wrong 100% of the time. This is, unfortunately, more true than humorous. In forty years of horse ownership I have amassed enough veterinary detail to fill out my twelve mystery novels quite nicely, not even counting the things that have happened to my friends and been recounted to me. Once again, life as research.

Ok, I know many of you write—certainly my fellow authors on this blog do plenty of writing. I’m guessing that everyone who reads this blog also reads mysteries. What’s your opinion on research, and carefully and obviously “researched” details in novels? I love a good discussion.  Cheers Laura Crum

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4 Responses

  1. I must have flown over Greenland at least twenty times. Must be good for a series.

    Sheila Simonson

  2. Sheila–It is a good line, I will admit.

  3. Provocative post, Laura, as you wished! I think there’s something to be said for fiction — that is, making up a place. My first series is set in the town where I grew up and lived until after college. I visit often and I still have many friends and relatives to call on for information. But that can be still be difficult — while it’s true that your mountain scene may not change much over 12 books, a city does change. Buildings disappear or change hands, streets and sidewalks are built and unbuilt.

    For my 2nd and 3rd series, I decided to make up towns and strive to give them character in a way that has readers thinking they’re “real.” And no one writes to tell me that Tuttle Street is no longer one-way!

    • Camille–I hear you about towns changing. Santa Cruz is featured in some of my books, and though I am careful always to say that I have rearranged the real city to fit the purposes of the story, the fact that I begun the series in 1994, when Santa Cruz was still recovering from the Loma Prieta earthquake (today is THE day, by chance), means that the descriptions of the place in my first few novels are no longer very accurate. It isn’t even the details, its just that the town “feels” very different. So yes, I can see it might have been better to create a fictional “Santa Rita”, that was like Santa Cruz but not real. Perhaps I haven’t got a good enough imagination for that approach (!)

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