I was never much into research when I was in high school or college. Mostly I found it boring but also it was just kind of a pain. Besides, I was never really in any courses that required tons and tons of research so I more or less got away without having to do much. That is, until I went to law school. Even then my research was half-hearted at best and it wasn’t until I started practicing law that I realized how research is pretty much what can make or break a case.
I’m not saying I fell in love with research at that point, but I did recognize the necessity of it and found that it’s a pretty great feeling when you come across the most perfect case or piece of law that’s going to make the other side pay for the hours they’ve made you slave over WestLaw.
And then over the past summer I was at a reading with Holly Black where we both talked about research for our books. Holly told the story of having a friend drive her around in the trunk of a car so she could know what it was like and I told the story of setting fire to sheets of ice to see how it melted (unfortunately the fruits of that scene were cut from the book) and how I’ve made my husband run around at night under the full moon so I can figure out just how much detail I’m able to see.
I realized as I was talking, just how much I actually LOVE doing research for my books. Because here’s the thing — most of it doesn’t feel like research at all. I get to watch zombie movies and read zombie books and play zombie games. I get to have long conversations with biologists and doctors about the theory of zombies and chat with forest fire fighters about how fire spreads, the heat at which a metal fence would be destroyed, what that forest would look like decades later. I get to figure out how light bulbs are made to determine whether the people in my fictional world would have the proper supplies and go through the effort. I even got to speak to a pandemic expert with the CDC about how a disease could spread globally and the effect that would have on commerce, governments, travel, etc.
I’d spent so much time equating research with boring that I never realized how fun and awesome it can be! My friend, Diana Peterfreund, sat in a tree blind with a world-class archer to understand what her characters were going through in her killer unicorn books Rampant and Ascendant — how awesome is that?!
Sure, maybe there are some details that are dull and that perhaps I could fudge and no one would notice (I spent quite a while compiling lunar charts for The Dead-Tossed Waves since so much of it takes place at night and I wanted to make sure it could happen the way I wanted with the moon cycle and tides). But I’m already asking my readers to suspend their disbelief and believe zombies are possible so I feel a duty that everything else in my world is as realistic as possible.
Besides, I know from my own reading experience that once you discover an author has fudged the details — not the truly miniscule things, but larger things that could be figured out with a modicum of research — you start to lose faith in the rest of their world. You start to question everything and sometimes you stop trusting what you read.
Goodness knows I shouldn’t be judgmental on the issue of research — I’m sure that even with my best efforts I’ve gotten things wrong in my books. Sometimes the pressure of deadlines makes difficult to take the time to do research or it doesn’t even occur to me to research a particular detail because I’ve just assumed my entire life that it’s one way and not another.
But I do feel like I’ve maybe figured something out and that’s this: if what you’re researching feels like a chore most of the time, maybe you’re writing the wrong book. I’ve found that if I’m writing the right book (one that excites me) I can’t wait to research — I can’t wait to figure out how to incorporate the neat little details and I love it when a bit of research totally spins my ideas in new and exciting directions.
Some research is always going to be boring and I’m not saying we have to love those parts, but not loving it doesn’t mean we don’t have to do it and if we have to do it anyway, we might as well try to research things that interest us.
And if you want to, why not share something fun and interesting you’ve learned doing research for a book in the comments — I find it’s always useful to have some random tidbits to pull out during the holiday work parties.