Don’t let the web turn you into a lazy researcher
“Literally millions of research man-hours are wasted as a result of errors and inaccurate data contained in reference sources.” - The Internet Accuracy Project
When I worked as a journalist you could still smoke in a little room down the hall from the newsroom (or smoke and drink right in the newsroom if you were pulling the midnight shift). Back then you had to call in and recite your story from a payphone outside the courthouse in order to meet deadline, and there was no such thing as Google to quickly help you round out your story with facts and figures and all sorts of misconceptions, fallacies and denigrations.
Ahhh, the good old days.
We’re not talking the 1920s here with Underwood typewriters, but circa 1993. We had a reference room stocked with phone books for most major cities in North America because there was no such things as 411.com. We worked the phones and we called people, we got wrong numbers, we woke people at all hours, had people yell at us and hang up, and sometimes we got lucky. We left the cocoon of the newsroom and interviewed people in bars, offices, on the street. Being a naturally curious kind of guy (which has gotten me into some interesting situations over the years, but that‘s another blog), I’ve always loved talking to people, asking them questions, piecing together a story by gathering different points of view. The way someone rolls their eyes when they answer a question says more than their words.
I have always enjoyed the research aspect of writing, completely immersing myself inside a new topic, and this has carried over from journalism into my creative writing. And while it goes without saying that the Internet has enriched our lives and allowed us to access a zillion new sources of information that used to require days spent buried in card catalogue drawers trying to decode the Dewey Decimal System, the world wide web has also led to an alarming increase in the writing sins of sloth, plagiarism, and condescension.
Oh, I know what you’re thinking. The web has made it so much easier to round out our crime fiction by Googling things like: ‘what happens to a body if you leave it in a field in the sun for sixteen days’, or ‘types of poison and their detect-ability during autopsy’. A father currently on trial for the murder of his daughters apparently typed “how to murder” in an Internet search engine on his laptop. So yes, it’s definitely handy for research. I’ve used the Internet to re-confirm street grids and routes that my mind’s eye has forgotten, and I’ve also used it to confirm historical timelines for events like the outbreak of SARS in Toronto (for Slow Recoil), and the total number of deaths attributed to the biker wars in Quebec (for The Weight of Stones).
But back to the sins of sloth, plagiarism, and condescension. I have set aside books by some well-regarded authors because they contain page after page of what might as well be verbatim historical “back story”. Readers aren’t dumb; they can detect when a writer has taken the cheap way out and copied and pasted all that stuff about (insert topic here). It makes for boring reading, and readers deserve better. And quite frankly, why are you writing if you simply want to regurgitate a bunch of stuff that you just read? Are you a creative writer or a kid cribbing notes for a Grade 8 public speaking assignment? Vicki Delany’s mystery series about the Klondike gold rush (Gold Digger and Gold Fever) paint an authentic portrait of that stinky and romantic era, the muddy streets and the smell of a dance hall, the language and the diction, without coming off as a forced and awkward history lesson.
My research always involves a variety of tools and approaches. There is ‘hard research’ into those aspects that simply must be correct - the Criminal Code, for example, or how the office of the Crown Attorney works, or the ranks and titles and hierarchy of the police. This should require the consultation of entirely factual and credible sources, not some web page belonging to a 14-year-old kid who stays up way past his bedtime. During the story development phase, when the idea for a novel is coming together in my head, I read only non-fiction books pertaining to the story’s main theme. Even if I don’t refer to a specific event or person from these books, I simply feel better prepared, somehow more authentic in my task, when I sit down to write.
So-called ’soft research’ into the subjective aspects of our world can involve Google searches galore, but nothing can replace first-hand experience. No library books or web searches provided me with a better understanding of the legal system and criminals themselves than sitting in court and covering real trials, interviewing a killer behind prison walls, talking to attorneys in the hallway of a courthouse. It was by getting to know a couple of ex-cons that I came to understand criminal jargon and posturing. An old bank robber told me how ‘keeping six’ means to act as lookout on a job, or that ‘a deuce less’ means that a guy has drawn a sentence of two years less a day - as though he were playing cards with his life.
If you want a real quick immersion into the world of petty criminals, those folks who toil in lives of perpetual desperation, just spend a Monday morning sitting in remand court. It is a sad parade indeed of mistakes, misdeeds, and miscalculations. You will leave with new gratitude for your simple and peaceful life as well as an appreciation for the pessimism and predictability of the criminal law system.
This is one writer who hopes the Internet never trumps my desire to talk to real people, get to know their backgrounds and their strange motivations, ask questions and seek to understand something new about our collective predicament with each book that I am blessed to write.
C.B. Forrest's The Weight of Stones and Slow Recoil were both short-listed for the Arthur Ellis Award. The Devil’s Dust, his third and final novel featuring Charlie McKelvey, will be available May 2012 and has been called “a tour de force“ by two-time Governor General Award winner Tim Wynne-Jones. Research into Forrest’s unbelievable life and times can be conducted entirely online.