Monday, February 11, 2013

Research and Realism

I'm busy traveling today, so my two-time client and all-round great guy, thriller and horror writer Allan Leverone, is filling in here at CFC for me today. Take it away, Al!
- Jodie Renner, freelance editor and craft-of-fiction writer

RESEARCH & REALISM, by Allan Leverone

As a genre author, my goal is to immerse the reader in the story. I want you turning the pages late into the night, knowing you should put the book down and go to bed but unable to force yourself to do so. I want you so involved in my fictional world that if the phone rings, you don’t even want to take your nose out of the book for three seconds to check the caller ID.

That’s my goal. And without putting words in anyone else’s mouth (or on anyone else’s keyboard), I think it’s probably a pretty safe bet that’s the goal of everyone who writes fiction.

In other words, I want to achieve a measure of realism you will accept as a reader. Since I’m only expert in a small number of subjects (people who know me might suggest that number is zero), a certain percentage of my time as an author must be spent in research.

I hate research.

Let me clarify: I like learning new things but don’t enjoy doing research for research’s sake. When I’m writing, I would much rather be writing than researching. I want to learn enough about a subject to ensure that you, as a reader, are not forced out of the story by a lack of realism in the writing.

My new thriller, Parallax View, is set late in the Cold War, in 1987, and action takes place inside the Kremlin, as well as in East and West Germany and the United States. The plot revolves around a secret communique, written by Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev, to be delivered to U.S. President Ronald Reagan by beautiful and clever CIA clandestine ops specialist Tracie Tanner. A shadowy cabal is determined to ensure that communique never reaches the White House, and the chase is on.

As I mentioned before, there aren’t many subjects on which I could be considered an expert. What few subjects there are do not include KGB operations. Or CIA operations, for that matter. I’ve never been to the Kremlin. Never met Mikhail Gorbachev, although most of a couple of chapters in PARALLAX VIEW is spent inside his head.

To prepare for writing the book, I could have immersed myself in research; the subjects were certainly fascinating enough. But doing so could have meant taking years to write this one novel, rather than months, with only a minimal net gain in realism, if that. The stark reality of being a genre author early in the 21st century is that taking years to write a single book is not economically feasible.

So what’s the solution?

God bless the Internet. Instead of studying scholarly tomes on the history and construction of the Kremlin, instead of spending thousands of dollars I can’t spare to fly to Moscow (although I would love to do so some day), I was able to go online and inside of an hour’s time spent on the right websites, gain sufficient knowledge to allow me to write scenes with (hopefully) enough realism to keep the reader immersed in Tracie Tanner’s and Mikhail Gorbachev’s world, rather than our own.

The same thing goes for Soviet sniper gear. Soviet cigarettes, televisions, monitoring equipment. All these things required research, which I was able to do online in significantly less time than it would have taken twenty or thirty years ago. And my editor, Jodie Renner, collaborated by keeping an eye out for any possible discrepancies for the time period of the novel.
Another example: Ramstein Air Base in West Germany. Never been there. If you served in the United States military during the mid-1980s and your tour of duty took you through Ramstein, you may not recognize the base from its appearance in PARALLAX VIEW.

But here’s the point: you’re reading fiction. Ramstein Air Base is going to look like what I need it to look like to advance the story. My goal as a writer is to draw you into the fictional world through steadily increasing tension, and through characters who live and breathe and become real to you. If you’re looking for a detailed historical account of the Cold War, you should probably look elsewhere. If you’re interested in a detailed description of U.S. military bases in Europe during the Reagan years, you should probably look elsewhere.

But through the magic of the Internet, any writer can become well-enough versed in almost any subject to enable him or her to write compelling fiction. Because, after all, the cliché says authors should “write what you know.” With the web at your fingertips, you can now “know” almost anything.

That’s my opinion. What’s yours? Is it cutting corners to do all of your research online? Copping out? Are only ex-Soviet Red Army snipers capable of writing about Russian sniper activity?

Allan Leverone is the author of the Amazon Top-25 bestselling thriller, THE LONELY MILE, as well as four other novels, including the brand-new PARALLAX VIEW. He's an air traffic controller in the real world and lives with his family in Londonderry, New Hampshire. Connect on Facebook, Twitter @AllanLeverone, and at
Click on these titles to go to Allan's novels on Amazon: Parallax View, Revenant, Paskagankee, The Lonely Mile, and Final Vector.


  1. Excellent post, Allan. Realism and the research to get it right is so important. Readers can so easily be snatched out of the story by something as simple as a timing detail or a location goof.

    I like to place my stories in places I've been, but not necessarily recently. Mapquest is my biggest friend, giving me distances and where things are. I don't want a Chicago reader to say, "Hey, you can't get from downtown to Cicero, Illinois in 20 minutes!" or "There's no El service to [wherever]."

    As for Ramstein, I suspect that someone based there might blink and notice a discrepency, but probably not enough to stop reading.

    The Internet is fabulous for writers' research needs. Thanks for the words.

    1. Yoni, thanks for checking in - Mapquest, Google Earth, the Yahoo groups, those are just a few of the nearly limitless tools available now, all of which are just a few clicks of a mouse away.

      The last thing I want is to pull the reader out of the story - I heard from a reader of my first novel, FINAL VECTOR, and she was unhappy that I didn't describe her town (Hull, MA) the way she remembered it from living there.

      I decided at that time to use fictional locations as much as possible, but doing so is a lot more feasible in my horror novels than in my thrillers.

  2. I worked late last night so I'm remiss in getting to this until now, but I want to extend my thanks to Jodie Renner and to everyone else at Crime Fiction Collective for opening up your virtual home to me - pretty nice digs here, you might have to call the authorities to get me out...

  3. I do some research online for specific, small details, but I also conduct interviews with specialists for every novel. It's worth it for the extra, and often vital, information I get. Sometimes, it's not even stuff I ask about, it just comes up.

    1. I do the same, LJ, especially since it's nearly impossible to know enough about all the different subjects that arise while you're writing.

      Thing is, there are always going to be readers who know more about a particular subject than you do, no matter how much research you've done, so how do you know when to pull the plug on the research and start typing?

  4. I get my start with research online. Then I buy books (right now I have three non-fiction books for the story I'm writing now—THE SWAMP; THE CAJUNS and THE DILOGGÚN) and later I'll actually talk to people who know more than I do about each of these subjects. Whenever I speak to an "expert" I always pick up something that further authenticates my story. Usually that's an odd little factoid or some kind of slang.

    I have two friends who will simply stop reading a novel the minute they can no longer trust the writer to get things right, even if it's a terrific story. I sort of feel sorry for them and sort of understand them.

    Great post, Al!

  5. Great post Allan - you also have great books!

    1. Elisabeth, thanks very much; I really appreciate that!

  6. I think it was Stephen King who said, when you're writing (i suspect he meant drafting) and you come to a detail you don't know or can't get to in a few seconds, put in a marker (like [DETAIL]) and keep going. Do the research later.

    It might not have been him, though, because I'm not sure he stopped writing long enough to do a second draft/revision wherein that research would show up. SF, and certainly Fantasy, once the world's been built (or the premise/science laid out) doesn't need research in the same way.

    Yes, the googles make research so much easier - as I tell my students. :) I think the tools mentioned here - mapquest/google maps, various search engines, interviews, set websites, etc. cover most of the immediate needs. There's always a library for books on 18th shirt manufacturing or such, though even now a lot of that's online via PDF.

    To address your question, Allan, yes it's cutting corners to research online. Writing fiction is cutting corners - if the object is objective reportage. What you're talking about, though, is setting. Movies and TV cut the same corners all the time: miniature sets, 'filmed on location' in the back of a studio, or in City A which is supposed to be City XYZ. As you noted, the setting (research, background) as no inherent value in fiction. It's the place wherein the story occurs. The place must be real (real enough - verisimilitude) or there is no story. So we only need as much setting (research, background, details,etc.) as the story demands.

    To provide more would be to provide less.

    Thanks for a great post.

  7. Great post, Allan. And exactly right. Writers should inform readers of details only on a "need to know" basis. And what they need to know is only as much as necessary to keep them enchanted and believing in the Story World.

  8. I write historical crime fantasy, but I still research everything to the nth degree. I think research and writing are like salt. You have a great big barrel of it, but you only add a pinch to your cooking. How many books have we all read where there is so much lecturing by the author that the reader gets glassy-eyed? It's like too much salt on your fries - inedible. Likewise when not enough basic research has been done, like the recent book I read where the author could smell carbon-monoxide.

  9. If a novelist puts me so firmly into the story's characters or time period that I'm inspired to wrap my arms around them, I'm very likely to dive into scholarly books/web sites to dig out detailed information. A novel, Katherine by Anya Seton (1954), that I read several decades ago, prompted a passionate and life-long fascination with the Plantagenets and sparked a love of Medieval/Renaissance history I didn't know I possessed.

  10. Here's what I've decided, Allan,

    I'm just going to go buy your book, read it, then go do a whole ton of ridiculously intense research to see if I can find any mistakes.

    That'll show you, won't it! -smile-

    Seriously, as long as you don't contradict common knowledge and easily-accessible sources, and you don't screw up your continuity (or the time period details) -- then it all comes down to acing the essentials.

    Glad you subbed in to write this post, Allan. Your book sounds like something I will enjoy very much.

  11. Research is research and it all takes enormous amounts of time away from our writing. I don't think online research is cutting corners at all. However you get the info, being accurate is what's important. I do a combo of online and field research and enjoy mixing it up.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.