Is Research That Important?
The need to be a savvy, entertaining, visionary, imaginative, and riveting storyteller aside, research for me is a main and even essential ingredient of being an author who is taken seriously. It is an imperative element, without which any given book would lack authenticity, believability, and that organic quality (fantasy aside, of course) that moves readers to buy in, go for it, and take the journey. They must relate on some level and see plausibility (even within magical realism) in what they’re spending their precious time drinking in.
I’ve found that research these days seems to be most crucial and valuable when it comes to thrillers. Readers of this genre are particularly clever (I’m not blowing smoke—just calling it as I see it), and I’ve discovered they’re not shy about calling out those who make it up, phone it in, or try to get away without homing in on the real goods. Whether the protagonist is a medical examiner, a homicide detective, a trial attorney, or a private investigator (or anything in between), procedurals matter. Many readers know the drill and demand accuracy. Others get excited from recognizing those bits and pieces they are familiar with, while others thrill to learning and getting acquainted with how things work in worlds they’re not yet well versed in. They’ll likely share these new nuggets of information over lunch or dinner or when the subject comes up.
For me, as a reader, it’s a combination of all of the above. As an author, so much depends and is founded upon the research. It allows dimensional construction and realism, both of which matter so much to me. I cannot fully conceive and then convey what any given characters are doing or how they are navigating if I don’t understand their experiences in a deep-rooted way.
Over the years, research has taken me across the globe and introduced me to some truly amazing and heroic people, many of whom I’m now privileged to call my friends. Among the illustrious legions of professionals who’ve been generous enough to share some of their knowledge while allowing me to tag along (I hope I haven’t been a pest) have been police detectives and officials, physicians, social workers, activists, and even undertakers. I am positively obsessive about getting everything right, about fully comprehending the various crafts, rules, regulations, and skills involved (though, of course, I don’t come close to mastering them, and I don’t even think about trying any of what they do at home).
For my new series, which is set in the US and centered on a funeral home, I dug deeply into an exploration of the industry. The concept had sprung to life for me after the deaths of my parents; it was my first brush with undertakers, and I was simply blown away by the work they do and the enormous pressure they endure. They are not only charged with handling the deceased in a reverent and dignified way, ensuring their loved ones have farewells that are as comfortable as is humanly possible, but also have the profound responsibility of handling with care and sensitivity those survivors who are devastated by the losses of their mothers, fathers, partners, neighbors, friends, teachers, and even, perish the thought, children.
Given that this series takes place in the States, and specifically in Wisconsin, I traveled to and settled into the town of Racine, which is home to a massive number of Danish immigrants. I spent time with undertakers there, learning not only the art of their profession but also the regulations that guide them. I was struck while learning of the sometimes vast differences in rules and laws, not only from one country to another, but from one state to another, and certainly within different religions. There are many aspects that are shared, but also some dramatic contrasts. In Denmark, unlike in the US, embalming is not done. The idea is unthinkable. There are no open caskets, no wakes, no ceremonies in funeral parlors, and no huge crowds and parking lots to accommodate them. In Wisconsin, home burial is lawful. There is no legal time frame for the disposal of a body.
Whether the backdrop for one of my books is a city (like Copenhagen) I am extremely familiar with and have lived in, or one like London or Racine, I go to the very spot where the action will play out. It is only when standing there, breathing the air, hearing the sounds, seeing the sights, eating the traditional foods, interacting with the locals, and smelling the odors that I feel equipped to have my characters do the same. When one of them looks out a window at something that is particularly wondrous or terrifying, readers can be sure I’ve looked out that same window and ingested those same visuals. They’ve lingered in my thoughts; some have haunted me. Until they take root, I cannot, as the eyes and ears of my readers, do them justice.