Monday, April 04, 2016

How I screwed up by breaking my three golden rules of research

Unfortunately, errors happen in books despite the time authors, publishers and editors spend checking.

It’s annoying and I know as a reader that one small mistake can undermine the authenticity of an entire book.

I had a couple of howlers in my latest book, An Empty Coast, relating to firearms.  What annoys me most is that if I’d followed my rules of research they wouldn’t have happened.

If you’re at all interested, I’ll give you my three rules of research, and you can see how I screwed up.

1.     1. Do not rely on the internet

This is my cardinal rule.  I’ve wasted too much time, especially in my earlier novels, looking for stuff on the internet.  I find different spellings for place names and foreign words, and (often vastly) different takes on the same subject matter.

I needed some information on the Russian-designed Dragunov sniper rifle, which features at a pivotal moment in An Empty Coast, and learned that it fires the 7.62x54mmR round.  Sonja (my heroine) has to pick up a discarded empty rifle (I won’t tell you why) and loads it with some ammunition that she has with her.  Therein lies the problem – I found a reference online that said the standard Russian 7.62x39mm round, as used in the AK 47 assault rife (have I lost you yet?) could also be used in a Dragunov.

As I read that, I thought, ‘how weird’, but I didn’t do any more checking.  Why not?  Because it suited the story and was an easy fix to a corner I had written myself into.  And I needed to get on with writing the story.

Fact:  no, you cannot interchange those rounds in a Dragunov rifle, as several people have taken the time to point out to me since the book was first released.

2.     2. If you need to know something, find an expert

The only thing the internet is useful for is finding people who actually do know what they’re talking about and then contacting them. 

If I need to know how to perform minor surgery in the field I’m far better off asking a friendly doctor than consulting an online medical forum.  Same thing goes for firearms. 

I have served in varying capacities in the Australian Army for more than 30 years so I know little bit about guns.  And there’s another pitfall for novelists – a little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing.  I’ve never fired a Dragunov sniper rifle, just as I never carried a Glock pistol in the army (I got something wrong about Glocks as well in the book), so instead of winging it, I should have asked someone.

3.     3. Research retrospectively

Finally the last rule I follow is to not waste time (and it is usually a waste) researching while I’m writing.  In 99.9 per cent of cases if I don’t know something while writing (and it happens a lot), I make a note to myself in the manuscript to go back and check it later.

This allows me to crack on with the story – the most important thing in my line of work.  Secondly, when I finish my manuscript and go back to the start and do my first edit I may very well find that I don’t need all that information that I reminded myself to check.

Thirdly, when I find I do need some specific piece of information this process means that when I find my expert in the required field I do not waste his or her time with a list of speculative research questions.  I will go to them seeking very specific answers.

If I’d followed my rules of research I would have just made a note to myself to see how Sonja could have found a suitable round for her rifle, or possibly changed the scene altogether.  I should have (but didn’t) then sent my manuscript to someone who knew about guns and ammunition and asked them to check my references to a subject I clearly did not know enough about.

The good news is that I’ve just finished correcting the manuscript of An Empty Coast so that the eBook and the next printed editions will be correct.

Next time I’ll stick to my own rules and hopefully I won’t shoot myself in the foot – not that I could have with a 7.62x39mm round.


Jack Wills said...

I can imagine that you must feel embarrassment over this deviation from your research rule, but I would think it would be difficult finding experts on all of your detailed information on planes, boats, animals and weapons. I know I have often felt impressed with your knowledge and wondered how you went about obtaining this information. How do you go about finding and enlisting experts on the details you provide the reader?

Heather C said...

Well done Tony!! It takes an honest person to admit to their mistakes!! Most interesting to read your comments!! Best wishes for the next one! Heather Cairns

Tania Potter said...

Hi Tony, these are great tips to hear from a published writer, even for a small scale writer like me! Thanks so much for sharing your very useful experience.