What is the most intensive research you have done for a book?

With the number of books I have been reading lately, it has occurred to me that many authors do an amazing job getting their background information for their story.  Some of the subjects covered are certainly not common knowledge.  For instance, if you use myth or history, it requires considerable reading to make sure everything is accurate.  Of course, writers use a certain amount of creative license in the details of their stories, but they must first have the basics.  There is a quote I read once that said it most aptly:

“Get your facts first, then you can distort them as you please.”
– Mark Twain

Another example that impresses me is police procedural novels.  Of course some writers were law officers before or they at least worked around that field.  Yet many others have had no previous experience and must conduct research so their books are believable.

This leads to my questions for the day.  How do you go about gaining background for your ideas?  What are your basic methods?  Not only this, but what is the one subject you spent the most time studying in order to cover it for a book?  People think fiction is all made up, but in reality there is so much more to it.  There are interesting facts intertwined with story telling.  I love learning these as I read.

Now this is your chance to tell others and myself about the hard work you put into your book and what parts took the bulk of your time to prepare.  I will look forward to the responses.  It is great to learn about the efforts writers make to ensure their work is interesting and believable for readers.  Unlike the “behind the scenes” options you get with DVDs/Blu-ray, we rarely get to learn what authors did to make their story come alive!

~ by Suzie on June 25, 2011.

17 Responses to “What is the most intensive research you have done for a book?”

  1. The most intensive studying I’ve had to do so far was for my first book. I wanted a passage in there in which the protagonist learned to use a sextant to navigate. It wasn’t necessarily important to the plot, but it was important thematically to the book. Unfortunately, I had absolutely no idea how to use a sextant.

    The research proved far more difficult than I imagined! It’s kind of like a slide rule… sure, there are people out there who still know how to use one, but they’re rare. All of the reference materials I could find online were frustratingly vague. I went to the local library and looked up books on seafaring, navigation, everything I could think of. Nothing had a clear, detailed explanation of the actual operation of using a sextant.

    In the end, I contacted a maritime enthusiast that I found on the Internet. Even he didn’t have a clear understanding of how to use the thing! But he put me in touch with a gentleman who was an authority on historical navigation techniques, and he gave me a very basic outline of how a sextant worked. I was able to incorporate it into my story, and I think that I managed to get it mostly right.

    My next research project takes a turn to the macabre. I am researching medieval torture techniques for my third book, The Door to Fear.

    • It is really amazing to hear how much work some authors go through just to get certain details right in their novels. Your diligence in finding out how a sextant works is certainly admirable! Though people may never know how difficult it was for you to gain that knowledge, I’m sure many of your readers appreciate the extra detail you put into it.

  2. In my Science-Fiction series, first book due to be released next summer, I had to research historical sightings and alleged crash-sites of UFO’s.

  3. The biggest area of research for me is the forensic/medical side of the murders. Although I write sci-fi, my characters are human, and so I feel all the gory details need to be anatomically accurate. I spent ages researching about the onset of rigor, particularly for my third book, which is set on an ice-world. I wanted to know how extreme cold would alter the process. In my seventh book I have an acid attack and that also took weeks to research.

    I have Egyptian and Norse references, which are all researched and accurate.

    Then there is the quantum mechanics. I had to read (and understand) Stephen Hawkins so that the turbo drive my character installs in book two is plausible based on our current knowledge.

    And I even researched (would you believe) the psychology of a man falling in love with two women simultaneously. I trawled through goodness knows how many chat rooms – a few eye-openers there!

    I would guess of the total time it takes me to produce a book, it probably splits 25% research, 50% writing, 25% editing.

    • Janet, sounds like you are very detail oriented. That can truly show in books and make them much more realistic. The psychology of a man falling in love with two women must have been interesting. I imagine those chat rooms were rather enlightening. Makes me wonder how many other authors bother to research into that kind of depth when writing such situations.

  4. I had to do quite a bit of research for ECHOES FROM THE GRAVE. Since I have some Native American characters in the Sam Casey series, for 25 years I subscribed to Indian Country Today newspaper and kept clippings of subjects I might use in the future. Since ECHOES concerned the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, I had to read what it all entailed, most of which I found in the newspaper and online. I also needed to know what Natives inhabited my area in Northwest Indiana, what the soil contained (since this was an archeological dig) and the natural forces that shaped the area around Lake Michigan. By sheer luck, as I was writing the book a local college professor had a signing for his book, “Calumet Beginnings” which described the shorelines and settlements in the Calumet Region.

  5. I borrowed a copy of the firefighter’s training manual and studied all about procedures, not just for fighting fires, but engine maintenance, car accidents, EMT stuff. I wanted to know what all the knobs were called, and which responsibilities belonged to the engine and which were the truck’s. I read the whole book, even the hazardous materials unit, even though I knew that wasn’t going in my story.

    I watch a lot of crime shows (Criminal Minds is my favorite), so I already have a general understanding of those workings and terms. I double-check smaller details, like how many hours exactly before rigor mortis, that kind of thing. I’ve been told a couple times I should write for like CSI, but writing scripts isn’t anything like a book, so no thanks.

    Oh, I also went onto cancer boards and read personal stories about what it’s like living with cancer, everything from symptoms and treatment to side effects and family/emotional struggles. That was a little rough, which is probably why my brain tried to forget.

    • Angela, I had wondered how you knew so much about a firefighters job while reading your book. I am impressed at the level of research you did to make it accurate. I went through EMT school against my will and learned some of those things there. A lot of people don’t realize how many things first responders must know.

      I also wondered how you knew so much about how someone with stomach cancer would be treated. It was certainly realistic. Good work as it certainly showed in your story. As I said in my blog, it definitely got me teary eyed at some points!

      • Hehe, against your will?

        • Yep, believe it or not, that can happen. Back when I was in the Army, my unit got a slot for EMT school. While we were in formation they asked for volunteers who wanted to go. About five or six people raised their hands, I was NOT one of them. A few days later they tell me I’m going. I argued that I had no desire to be involved in the medical field. Not to offend those that do, but blood and guts just don’t do it for me. My chain of command disagreed and made me go anyway. Of course, I could have just failed the school, but I’m a type A personality which means once I set out to do something, I try to do it well. That meant despite my dislike of attending the school, I actually did study and try. Also passed the national exam. Considering we had one month to learn everything that is normally taught in four months, I was an accomplishment.

          After the school was over, I proceeded to brain dump most of it. They would make me be the “medic” during long ruck marches because our company didn’t have one. Due to the fact giving IVs is not my favorite thing to do, I would make a big show of telling everyone how out of practice I was at it and to PLEASE not drink water and dehydrate themselves so I could give them one. Needless to say, there were no heat casualties on my watch! Only got to put in four IVs during my career and they were for practice on people that also got to give them to me. Oh well.

          Anyway, that is my EMT school story. My certification expired long ago just as it was meant to, lol. I do remember all the first aid training that is designed for combat, but that is an entirely different skill set than EMTs, nurses, or doctors learn. It is for when you are in a place with little or no medical supplies and must stabilize someone with what little you have knowing a hospital may be out of reach for some time. Much more useful as a soldier than the EMT stuff was.

          • Hehe, I don’t handle real blood and guts well, either. Very interesting story, Susan. You have lots of knowledge for writing military fiction. And if I ever have a character in the military, I know who to call. 🙂

          • Well, one of my first blog posts on here was for a book I started but decided not to finish. The opening chapter is what I put up and it does show detailed knowledge of a military background.


            I can pick out an author who is ex-military easily. They know all the right lingo and show the right attitude with their characters. Authors without a military background have a hard time with this. The ones who really drive me crazy are the authors who put special forces guys in their books. I was in units with SF guys and they are almost never like the books describe. Please, if you do write a book with military people in it, get with me or another person of that background. It makes all the difference in the world for believability. Don’t go to a military spouse, though, unless you are going for that perspective. There is ALOT they don’t know.

          • I remember that chapter. I remember you said it was a story you weren’t ready to completely write yet. Are you working on any other military stories that are more based on complete fiction?

  6. Oooh, I’d be interested to see what you make of my male protagonist, Susan.
    He’s ex-military, but because my series is set in a fictional universe his background isn’t quite the same as a contemporary military veteran. He’s from a rich family and was sent to a military academy at the age of sixteen, with his commission basically “bought” for him, regardless of aptitude to do the job (as used to happen in Britain a few hundred years ago). He was clearly the wrong personality type for the military and ended up with a dishonourable discharge and a complete hatred of everyone in authority.

    I have a cousin in the RAF (the British airforce) who has served in Iraq and Afghanistan, and he gave me some background information, but my protagonist definitely isn’t going to fit anyone’s expectations of a military veteran.

    • Janet, I am not so picky with how military and/or veterans act if the book is fantasy, historical, or futuristic. They would have circumstances that are a bit different than what I experienced so it is easier to suspend my disbelief, lol. Only contemporary creates problems for me. I will look forward to your book and seeing how your veteran behaves!

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