Writers have imaginations. But we also have to do research to get our facts right, so we don't just repeat common mistakes. And, as a reader, if something is wrong it immediately throws me out of the story (depending on the severity). Sometimes it is a lack of understanding on the writer's part, where they just copy what they have seen in other fictions; occasionally it is ignoring facts to make a scene more "dramatic".

Example One - Kaboom!

"Maybe she should just jam her pen into the ballspring valve of one of the oxygen tanks and fill the air with flammable gas. She could spark a match and take out a few of those fuckers with her ... so she can make an explosion." (Source)

The problem is, oxygen isn't explosive. Without some other fuel or explosive element, it would do nothing except make the match burn a bit brighter. You can read more about this misconception.

Example Two - Kathump kathump!

A frequent scene in books and films (so frequent it counts as a hoary cliche) is when someone has drowned or been electrocuted and stopped breathing, apparently died; then a friend gives mouth to mouth, thumps their chest, cries a bit or says "You have to live because I love you!", and with a sudden gurgle the victim wakes up okay, just a little dizzy.

This happened in Hunger Games 2: Catching Fire (Finnick restarts Peeta's heart with CPR), and a million other books and films. Whenever it appears I groan inwardly.

1. If someone's breathing has stopped, chances are their heart has, too.

2. CPR is done when the heart stops; but CPR does not restart the heart, it just helps keeps the brain alive until help comes. CPR is a method to pump oxygen around the body and keep someone alive long enough for proper medical attention to arrive. Mouth to mouth adds more oxygen to their bloodstream, though that isn't necessary for the first few minutes anyway, the victim has enough oxygen in their blood already.

3. It takes a defibrillator to restart the heart (or rather, to shock the heart out of an erratic rhythm - in other cases more advanced techniques and drugs can be used). CPR and mouth to mouth will not restart a heart (except in very rare cases - whereas in books and films it works 99% of the time, as long as the character is important to the author ... which dangerously misleads readers/viewers about first aid, and could lead to real-life deaths).

In the average case in Western society, even with CPR from a bystander, followed by a medical team arriving, hospital, and defibrillation, the survival rate is 10-15%.

"Without immediate treatment from a defibrillator, 90-95 percent of SDA [Sudden Cardiac Arrest] victims will die. [...] The only effective treatment for SDA is to deliver an electrical shock using a device called a defibrillator. [...] Survival rates drop 10% as each minute passes without defibrillation." (Source)

This is why writers need to do a bit of research, as well as knowing the basics of how the world works

Research - And When To Do It

I'm not saying that we have to do every bit of research before we write - in that case, we'd never get started! It's fine to write and just make things up as you go. But you need to check your facts later on.
I do research in two stages. The first is the research I have to do before I can plot and write. For example, there'd be no point me writing scenes about medical practice without researching first - I'd be wasting my time sending the plot down avenues that wouldn't exist in real life. However, in many cases you can let your imagination run free and do the secondary research (which is mostly just fact checking and adding of local detail) afterwards as part of the editing process (as detailed here). I enjoy the second type most since it has a logical end - the problem with the first type of research is that you could keep doing it forever.

Another example: if I was writing about a prison escape, I would definitely do research first into penal systems, lock technologies, famous escapes from the past and so on, letting it fire my imagination. But as I wrote the first draft I wouldn't keep stopping to check things. I'd just make it up, or write "[insert lockpick description here]", or add a note to check something later. Never break the flow when you are actually writing, whether to check facts or correct typos or whatever. The flow, and immersion, is important. But later on in the rewrites you will definitely do research into the bits you made up.

Sources Of Information - Interviews

Many sources are the obvious ones: books, journals, and the Internet. Read around a topic and follow interesting leads. I was interested to find that there are telephone numbers for use in fiction.

But don't forget another key resource: people. I sometimes interview people about aspects of their life, usually to do with employment (since I can't do every job in the world, so it is fascinating to interview a dental technician, or a supermarket check-out assistant, or a sound engineer, or to find out about the pressures from management to achieve sales targets in a busy retail establishment). Recording those details enables us to make the fictions real, and when combined with other research it enables us to get into the mindset of a person with a job or hobby we have never done ourselves, or experiencing something we haven't. Everyone has a tale to tell.

Let me know your thoughts on research for writers!

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