Strange New Directions: The Importance of Research

If fiction is the doorway to new and exciting worlds, then research is the door frame. No one ever notices it. They concentrate on the brass handle, the polished hinges, and the flawless paint, such a deep midnight blue that you expect to see constellations of stars bursting from the glossy surface. No one notices the door frame, but it supports the whole thing. It allows the doorway to exist.

The simplest research is never noticed, unless you get it wrong. Small details that may not seem important can damage the illusion of reality. I read a book recently where a character slept with a gun under her pillow, specifically a Glock, with her finger “curled” around the trigger and the safety on. This was an important prop interaction because it showed severe contrast and character change from when compared to a similar bedtime scene early on in the story. There is just one problem. There aren’t any external safeties on a Glock. The slightest jerk in her sleep and the girl would have blown her brains all over her Aunt’s comforter set.

This is a minor issue, but it is one that is easily avoided. All the writer would have had to do is consult the Google oracle to find that, short of major modifications, this gun lacks an external safety. No doubt this is a minor issue to the writer. It isn’t a major issue to me, but what would seem a little detail to one person is a major issue to another. That error broke the illusion during an important character moment. I’m not badmouthing the author, at all. He wrote a wonderful, beautiful book, but it was a mistake that could have easily been checked by either the writer or the editor. If you are going to mention a specific brand of anything, you should probably learn how it works. It can lead to rewarding discoveries to enhance your writing.

When I wrote a story to submit to a “Lost Civilizations” anthology, I discovered the ancient pueblo people known as the Anasazi. They essentially disappeared from the face of the Earth, leaving behind roads, cliff dwellings, and other amazing structures. My research, along with some fictional connections, became the basis for the story of Len, a clan musician, who flees the cannibalistic “Eaters,” who have invaded the capital of the Anasazi society. The story speculates on the fate of that society, the power of art and story in the face of war and aggression, and a number of others things. Ultimately, “Flute of the Dead” was not chosen for the anthology, but was picked up by Bete Noir Magazine, and will appear in their anniversary double issue in October. Based on the amount of information I uncovered, I think there is a novel-length book in the idea, and hope to get around to writing it some day.

I couldn’t write that story without research. It it was a product of the information. As such, it had its own challenges. The first draft was horrid. God-awful. I had to learn to write that sort of story. Ultimately, after major revisions (my protagonist got cut entirely from the story), it worked, and it sold.

I learned a lot from writing “Flute of the Dead.” I had to fight the desire to show off everything I had learned at the cost of story structure. It took me out of my comfort zone and made me try to find the universally familiar in the totally foreign. It wasn’t easy, and I have a lot of pride in how it turned out. Most of all, I learned about the power of research, and how it can lead you in strange new directions.

Jack Campbell, Jr. is a dark fiction writer in Lawrence, KS. His writing has appeared in various venues including Twenty 3 Magazine, Danse Macabre, and Insomnia Press. He writes about reading, writing, and life on his blog at

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