Is Research Important in Fiction?
Had you ever read a novel and realized parts of it were untrue? I have and I find it irritating, enough so that I often do not finish the book. As a writer of medical fiction, I know how much blood a patient has in his body, and I know how much blood you can lose and still live. When I see medical errors in a thriller or any book, I doubt the veracity of the writer. For many years, I was a medical researcher and a social scientist but most of all, I was and still am a nurse.
Alex Destephano medical thrillers novels have three purposes: to engage, to entertain, and to educate. This philosophy comes from my teaching days. My bio and blog say it all: "Judith Rocchiccioli writes about what she knows... Hospitals, patients, healthcare, doctors, and nurses".
When I wrote the first book in my Alexandra Destephano series, ‘Chaos at Crescent City Medical Center’, research was not in a major issue. I was living and working in New Orleans where the story takes place, so I did not need to research setting, dialect, and local customs. I wrote the book off the cuff. ‘Chaos’ has a skinny research file, with the exception of the references to the Healthcare Affordability Act, compared to my second medical thriller novel, ‘The Imposter’ that takes place in a psychiatric unit at the same hospital.
I did not have a lot of experience working on psych units, so I had to do a little research and to find out just how severely ill psychiatric patients in America really are. In my fictional psych facility at Crescent City Medical, there is a prison unit that houses the most criminally insane patients on the Gulf Coast, and a general psych unit. That is not a good combination. ‘The Imposter’ turned into a psycho thriller as well as an exposé on how dismal the state of psychiatric care is in America. Based on the research I gathered for ‘The Imposter’, I am writing a nonfictional piece called ‘Sarah's Story’ for which I am researching the misdiagnosis of bipolar disease in the US. This research involves searching medical databases such as CINAL, PUBMED and PSYCH ABSTRACTS.
I keep an electronic marketing file for each book as well as a folder with all of the research and websites I have visited. I also have a complete reference list done in APA style. In addition to my electronic files, I keep hard copies of most of the documents I have used in my stories. My PhD research days prepared me to save everything in case someone asked me a question or challenged what I wrote.
In my new release, ‘Viral Intent’, my series switched genres from medical thriller to political/medical thriller. The storyline, the outbreak of a noxious, lethal virus in the hospital emergency department on the day before a political convention, "Operation Fix America" in New Orleans, has police and Secret Service battling domestic and international terrorism. With POTUS coming to the Big Easy, I had to research the Secret Service, the FBI, chain of command, and jihad.
To write a technically correct book, I subscribed to Al Jazeera magazine and visited numerous websites about jihad, its mission, how they recruit, how they are financed, and how they operate. The next time I flew to New Orleans for a book signing, I found I was on the FBI "Watch List". Air marshals detained and interrogated me for at least an hour about my knowledge of jihad. My research on how to construct bombs got me in the worst trouble. They dusted my hands for chemicals, examined my luggage numerous times, and asked me the same questions a dozen different times. In return, I offered to let them see my research files, and of course, read my books.
While this experience upset me, I was happy that I had the “evidence" to help them understand why I had visited those websites. I am all about protecting our country, so now I just go to the airport two hours early, have my files on a USB drive, and have books available.
Today, I conducted research for my fourth novel in the Alex Destephano series, ‘Toxic New Year’, which I will release at the end of 2014. In this book, Robert and Monique attempt surgery in a bouncing ambulance to save Jack's life from a shrapnel injury. I searched to find how ambulance and rescue squads cooperate with each other, but I could not find documentation of that anywhere. In desperation, I called a paramedic friend of mine and he was able to explain the process for Virginia (where the scene occurred). He also said they would never do surgery in a moving ambulance, but I had to remind him that I was writing fiction!
This has been my experience conducting research for my books. Some might consider it a bit excessive or compulsive, but I think it comes from my background as a researcher. At this time, it is helping me as an emerging writer. If you would like more information about how to keep your writing and research files organized, please email me at email@example.com or visit my website at http://JudithLucciwrites.com
Judith is a registered nurse and native Virginian who grew up in Richmond. She holds graduate and doctoral degrees from Virginia Commonwealth University and the University of Virginia. She has been a practicing clinical nurse for over 25 years and is currently a professor of Nursing at James Madison University and the author of numerous academic and health-related articles and documents. In addition to her academic writing she is the author of the Alexandra Destephano novels, a group of medical thrillers set in New Orleans and Virginia. When not teaching or writing, Judith is an avid silk painter and multi-media artist. She owns Artisan Galleries, an art gallery with locations in Harrisonburg and Massanutten. She lives in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia with her family and six dogs.
When Judith is not being tossed around in the back of a moving ambulance as she tries to take research notes, she can be found here:
Thank you, Judith, for a superb peek behind the curtain at the hard work that goes into writing an authentic thriller novel. Hey, don't you think there should be special interview rooms for novelists at airports? Red Channel, Green channel, Writers channel. You know, somewhere with access to the Internet so we can prove what we do more easily? Just a thought...
Eric @ www.ericjgates.com