Doing Your Homework

Doing My Homework

No one I knew liked homework as a kid⸺and it’s still a pain for most authors of fiction.

As a reader, however, few things are more distracting than finding errors. A revolver that fires 11 shots – a Mustang convertible in 1950 – a shoulder holster worn under a shirt (!). These are actual bloopers that found their way into novels, speedbumps that disrupted the story in midstream.

No one’s perfect when it comes to mistakes but it’s distracting when an author “assumes.” Readers expect seamless flow. They look forward to entering another time and place, and errors disrupt that world. It’s the writer’s job not only to portray characters and emotions, but to base details on fact. Doing research can be boring and time-consuming but it sometimes brings unexpected rewards; a little-known fact can lead to subtle nuances or take the story in a new direction.

It was once a hassle to conduct research which meant trips to the library or archives. This was especially true when writing a novel dealing with a specific subject or stories set in the past. What were popular wines in 1930? When did automobiles become common transportation? What’s the weather like in Tuscany in November? When did Leonardo da Vinci die? The writer usually ended up with unwieldy stacks of 3X5 cards loaded with facts. Invariably, this meant trips back to the source for more information. Much of that grueling work has now gone by the board with advent of the Net⸺but even that’s fraught with challenges for the writer.


Wikipedia is a good example. While providing information, Wikipedia material can be unsubstantiated or questionable at best. I know teachers who do not allow Wikipedia to be used for research since a surprising amount of data is posted to pursue an agenda or provide a forum for erroneous opinions. Exactly who posted the information many times is not indicated.

Writers dread discovering a post-publishing mistake or having a fact disputed by a knowledgeable reader. I try to avoid this by consulting reliable sites on the Net and falling back on standard references (like books!). I was fortunate in writing my first novel, A Season for Ravens. Since WW1 aviation has been a life-long interest, my shelves are overflowing with books and information on the subject. Conversely, The Savannah Betrayals was more of a challenge than I envisioned. Having grown up in Savannah, I ‘assumed’ I had the facts at hand. However, I quickly discovered that I knew little about the city in 1836: How it looked; how people lived; their dress; existing streets, buildings, squares; public attitudes about dueling; etc.

None of this is a plea for reader sympathy. Doing your homework is part of writing. Research simply guarantees both the story and characters include true-to-life details without those speedbumps.