Stephen King, one of my favorite writers, once said about writing, “You can never bend reality to serve the fiction. You have to bend the fiction to serve reality.”
He also said, “You may be entranced with what you’re learning about flesh-eating bacteria, the sewer system of New York, or the IQ potential of Collie pups, but your readers are probably going to care a lot more about your characters and your story.”
So how does one get at just the right dollop of reality to serve their fiction? Research, of course. Sometimes this means a face-to-face experience, like attending a Citizen’s Police Academy as Lisa Jackson documents in her blog postings for Sisters In Crime New England.
But more and more we writers can do our research on the Internet. And sometimes the Internet even makes it possible for the author to simulate an actual experience. For instance, my husband, David, writes suspense. Recently he wrote a scene where a lifeboat is lowered down the side of a container ship. A YouTube video showed him that these lifeboats aren’t lowered at all. Instead, they sit on sloping rails and, when released, shoot down the rails and skim across the water. He even found a YouTube video shot by a passenger inside one of these lifeboats as it thuds into the water.
At other times the Internet lets us check the facts with honest-to-goodness experts. Like D. P. Lyle (http://www.dplylemd.com/DPLyleMD/Contact.html), the medical doctor who wrote “Forensics For Dummies” and who will answer certain simple, specific questions like, “In my story the police find a paper coffee cup at a murder scene. If the killer drank from this cup, can his DNA be obtained from it?” In addition, his website provides a list (http://www.dplylemd.com/DPLyleMD/Experts.html) of experts in other technical areas such as crime-scene analysis, handwriting analysis and the law.
And then there amazing online data mines such as Infoplease (http://www.infoplease.com/) or Refdesk (http://www.refdesk.com/) or the Internet Public Library (http://www.ipl.org/div/subject/). Or currency converters sites, such as http://www.xe.com/ucc/. Or, sites that help writers portray a unique culture more realistically. For example, recently I needed a name for a character who belonged to a specific Native American tribe–the Algonquins. No problem. I just went to http://www.babynameworld.com/algonquin.asp and found what I needed.
What are some your favorite ways to get at the truth to support your fiction?