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Susan Lyons | I Hate Research – Except When I Don’t

May 15, 2008

Personally, I’m not a big fan of research, and after 10 years of university I’d hoped my research days were behind me. Not so! But at least when I’m writing fiction, I can choose topics that interest me.

Firefighters, for example. I decided that the hero of HOT IN HERE (the 2nd book in my Awesome Foursome series, which is a kind of “Sex And The City” series set in Vancouver, BC), would be a firefighter. Now there, let me tell you, was one tough research assignment! Drinking tea in a Vancouver fire hall kitchen with a group of hot firefighters; visiting a firefighter training centre in Reno; having a couple of Queensland firefighters dress me up in full turnout regalia, then catch me when I promptly toppled over!

Not all research is that much fun, unfortunately. Sometimes it’s a matter of a quick or lengthy internet search or reading a stack of library books. That’s great for getting the factual info. I’ll usually start there. Then, if possible, I’ll set up an interview or two. Hearing people’s experiences and insights adds so much flesh to those factual bones. Personal experience is the best thing, of course – it gives us sensory details, ambience, emotion. (For those who’ve read HOT IN HERE, yes, I actually did take a pole-dancing lesson!)

This week, I was at the library reading a brief excerpt from my latest release, SHE’S ON TOP (the 4th book in the Awesome Foursome series). I realized my background research included the following: the Banff summer music school (where the heroine and hero first met), Armed Forces families (because the heroine’s dad was with the Air Force and they travelled all the time), Jewish customs (because her mother was Jewish and her faith was very important to her), and the life of a professional classical musician (which the heroine lives). Of course the scene isn’t an info dump, it’s all about Rina and Giancarlo catching up after nine years, and the reader getting to see some of their similarities and differences – and getting an idea of the conflicts that are going to make for trouble between them.

The point of doing research isn’t to dump it all into the middle of a story, but to give the authentic details and “feel” that make the characters and story come alive and ring true. I know some readers (and writers) are obsessed about total accuracy, but in my opinion it’s fine to fudge a little with the facts; what really matters is emotional truth and resonance. If you’re a writer, how do you feel about the research aspects of your work? If you’re a reader, are you one of the people who notices if a tiny detail is wrong, or are you happy to opt into a “it’s all made up anyhow” approach and just go where the author (and characters) take you?

Thanks so much for inviting me to blog at Fresh Fiction.

Susan Lyons

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