Last week, a colleague forwarded me a link to an online article relevant to research I'm doing for one of my novels. I read it with interest and a certain amount of indignation (the piece was about arsenic-based drugs fed to chickens raised for human consumption on large-scale industrial lots).
Then I read the comments, did thirty seconds of sleuthing, and my indignation turned to the author of the article.
The "author," you see, was not the author at all. The person had simply copied the article from a journalist writing for another web site, changed a few words here and there, and then listed as "sources" various other articles, but not the original piece he plagiarized. Perhaps worse yet, the "news" his piece was announcing was two years old.
None of us would ever do something like this, of course. Ever. They'd have to put a loaded gun to our heads—and even then.
But doing the right thing when you write isn't always so black and white, and it doesn't always look you straight in the eye.
Do the Write Research
First and always foremost, don't make things up. Please. Even if you think you know your stuff. I know it's obvious, and I know it's insulting your honor to mention this.
If there's any aspect of any person, thing, or scenario in your story that you're not familiar with, like what time the sun sets in Vanuatu in December, the exact wingspan of a whooping crane,* or the average life span of Theobroma cacao,** look it up.
For writers with affordable access to the Internet, or a computer and access to public WiFi, there is no excuse to forgo research. None whatsoever.
But make sure you do it right: don't just take the first article you find online as the golden word (see my opening paragraph above). Cross-reference, contact authors of articles and interview them, read the comments of blogs (where you may find experts more knowledgeable about a given topic than the original poster), read peer-reviewed works, copy random phrases from articles and plug them into search engines to make sure they're not being taken from other sources.
Primary advantages to doing your research properly include credibility for you as an author and realism and believability for your work. Side effects include expanding your knowledge about the world and impressing your friends at cocktail parties.
There are no disadvantages to research, other than perhaps the time it sometimes takes. I've spent hours researching all kinds of details in my stories, from the critically important to the apparently insignificant. Doesn't matter how small the detail. That's what makes readers feel like they're really there, in situ. Or simply that the author knows what she's talking about.
NOTE: If you're writing sci-fi or fantasy, obviously much of the research you'll be doing is in your own imagination. But that doesn't mean you're off the hook—there are still laws of Nature and Time that most alternate realities either obey or disobey. Either way, you should be familiar with the stuff that runs our universe.
* The wingspan of a whooping crane is 7.5 feet. Source: “Whooping Crane (Grus americana),” Texas Parks & Wildlife web site, accessed November 17, 2013, http://www.tpwd.state.tx.us/huntwild/wild/species/whooper/.
** The typical life span of a cacao tree (Theobroma cacao) is 20-40 years. Source: Allen Young, The Chocolate Tree, A Natural History of Cacao (Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 2007) 97.
If you're writing non-fiction, this is non negotiable: you must cite third-party quotes, statements, study results, and other information and material written by others that you use in your work. You can choose the citation style you want to use, ideally based on the kind of work you're writing.
If you write fiction, which presumes all of the work is yours, you won't need footnotes or endnotes; that would just push your reader right off the cliff of of your narrative. Unless, of course, you're doing experimental fiction that incorporates an impressionist interpretation of the APA Style Guide.
But styles aside, I do highly recommend documenting your research for yourself, because
a.) you never know when you'll get that email questioning your description of the cupola of the Duomo in Florence from a detail-obsessed reader who happens to be the world's top authority on the subject;
b.) if your novel about a mystery crime in Renaissance Italy unexpectedly blows Dan Brown out of the literary waters and you're suddenly swamped with speaking or blogging requests, you'll need to brush up on your background knowledge;
and c.) it's a real pain in ze derrière to have to go back and re-research the same topic for another story or book you decide to write in the future.
Example: see attributed sources in previous section.
Pay It Foreword
No one really writes alone. Sure, we writers are the ones dragging ourselves out of bed at 5 am and burning the midnight candle to get that breakout novel, story, or poetry collection done, but we have entire armies supporting us.
Whether your army is just a few footsoldiers (e.g., a supportive spouse and a graphic designer who agrees to do your cover pro bono) or an entire battalion (publisher, agent, publicist, developmental editor, copyeditor, proofreader, designer, ePub/mobi conversion expert, etc., and a literary pet mascot to boot), do the right thing and thank each person who made it possible for you to write. You can do so verbally or in a note, via a thoughtful gift, or, if appropriate, in the Acknowledgments section of your book.
Just as important: if someone agrees to write the Foreword to your book, give you an official endorsement, or introduce you to your future agent, publisher, or publicist, thank them too. In my book, that means a personal note or email that also offers to help them or support their work, in turn. Doesn't matter if they're famous or simply more well-known/established/wealthier/etc. than you. Status is meaningless when it comes to gratitude.
Being gracious and grateful to those who help you get your magnum opus out to the world is ALWAYS the right thing to do.
One More Thing.
In the spirit of this piece, I did my research. I wanted to make sure there's no other blog post in recent memory titled "Do the Write Thing." So I researched.
And curiously, I discovered an initiative called "Do the Write Thing." It's a project to help middle school students deal with and help stem violence in their homes and communities through writing, discussion, and personal commitments. My hat off to this organization. Check it out.
What are you working on now that could use a little research?
Note: The original version of this post was first published on The Write Practice on November 20, 2013.