I write urban fantasy–make-believe. So why am I doing more research than I did when I wrote mysteries? It came as a shock to me when I ended up with stacks of print-outs on voodoo and Norse gods, Wiccan Sabbats and Gorgons. How could supernaturals be more work than killing someone? But it’s simple, really. Whatever a writer puts in a story has to FEEL real, and if some fact is off-key enough to jostle a reader out of the flow, it’s a misstep. So if I put the Norse goddess Freya in a novel–Empty Altars, I’d better have my basics in decent shape.
My friend, M. L. Rigdon, writes fantasy, but she also writes Regency romances as Julia Donner. She has to research more little details (Were gloves buttoned? What fabric of gown did a woman wear at home instead of for a fete?), than I ever stopped to consider. Until I wrote Empty Altars. Then little things tripped me up. I couldn’t say “They went to bed,” because what was their house like? What did they sleep on? What did they do to keep warm? Mary Lou read my novella Uncommon Allies, set in Medieval times, and e-mailed me, “Send these to me before you put them online.” Because even after I’d done a decent amount of research, I apparently hadn’t done enough. The mistakes are mine, but at the time, I thought I was in good shape.
In the beginning, I have to admit, I wasn’t a big fan of stopping every other chapter to look up what gargoyles were carved from, the history of griffins, or the origin of Pegasus. But I learned that research not only adds a richness to a story that was lacking before, but it also inspires ideas. Now, granted, I’ve known people who spend more time on research than on writing. Somewhere, a writer has to strike a balance. But authenticity rings true in a novel. It makes the characters and setting come to life. It places the reader in the protagonist’s world–and nothing’s better than that, to live and breathe along with the main character.
The other thing to consider is that readers are SMART. Most of them are smarter than I am. Someone who buys one of my stories is going to know more about Norse myths or witchcraft or Druids than I do. I can’t compete with them, but I sure don’t want to disappoint them, so I try to get all of the facts I use right. Because if I’m wrong, they’ll notice. And it will jostle them out of the story. And that’s the last thing that I want to happen.
As writers, we want to grab the readers’ attention and keep it. We want them to keep turning the pages. If we screw up, they notice. They might even forgive us. But it puts a bump in a story that might make suspending disbelief impossible. And then we’ve lost that reader. Maybe forever.