Although I’m writing fiction and make a lot of stuff up, it’s nice to get my facts right. That doesn’t mean I can or do get every single detail correct, but I do my best to be as authentic as possible with the ‘real’ aspects of a story. I don’t want someone driving north on a one-way street that only goes south (unless they’re meant to be going the wrong way) and I don’t want someone seeing by the light of a full moon on the night of a new moon. So I fact-check a lot of those details, because they matter to me.
I even double-check things I think I know. For the book I’ve been writing, I looked up the layout of streets in Kyoto, Japan despite being well-familiar with them from personal experience. And I’m glad I did, because I found my memory was off a bit. (It was a long time ago.)
Sometimes research helps me choose the words I use. For example, most people say ‘clip’ to mean ‘magazine’ when talking about the container that holds ammunition for reloading a gun, while some people say that’s incorrect. Doing my due diligence, I found that a hundred years ago, ‘clip’ was only used in reference to ammunition held together by tape or string, either for loading directly into a gun or for loading into a magazine, which was a separate thing. But that distinction has long been obsolete.
For at least the past several decades, both common usage (even among gun enthusiasts and law enforcement) and dictionary definitions have had ‘clip’ also mean magazine. Some writers won’t use the word like that, in order to placate some pedants who refuse to let go of the archaic distinction, but unless a character happens to be one of those, I think they should use words the way most people do. Unless a story is set a hundred years ago, in which case saying ‘clip’ to mean magazine would be anachronistic. Though if a character is a time-traveler, such an anachronism might actually be appropriate. I think it’s best to do the research and know – then I’m better able to make the right choice for the story I’m writing.
In doing research I also find interesting little facts that add color and texture to my descriptions. But while learning about the little details is good, the best benefit is inspiration. When I went to the nineteen tens* to get the details right for Matt and Page’s storyline in Centenary Separation, some of the history of the women’s suffrage movement made its way into the main storyline and became an important part of the book. And when I delve into the nineteen twenties in preparation for writing Watchbearers book 4, I expect to discover some fascinating history to make an integral part of that story.
That’s why research is vital. As great as it is to get as many facts correct as I can, or discover details that add flavor to the narrative, what I really value are the ideas inspired by what I find, the ones I incorporate into these stories. And hopefully make them much more interesting.
(*Yes, time-travel technology does indeed exist. It’s called reading.)