Today I would like to introduce a longtime online friend of mine, Rich Weatherly, a writer who specialises in poetry and short stories with a modern-day or near-historical setting. He may single-handedly be pioneering the literary thriller as a genre. As well as being an all-round “good egg” as we British like to say—because all non-British know we learn English from Mary Poppins-like matriarchs—Rich is also methodical and thorough. So when it comes to meticulous research, Rich can definitely “bring it”—who says I don’t cater for a broad cultural audience? Anyhow, he seemed like the ideal person to answer a few questions on research and its importance in the writing process, so without further ado…
RW: Thank you for inviting me to an interview, T.James. I’ve enjoyed your writing and your blog. I hope my answers live up to your expectations.
TJ: You don’t have to worry about that—never having written anything historical myself, I’m easily impressed and sure to learn something. So, what subjects and time periods do you find most interesting to research?
RW: That’s a tough one because I’ve been a student of history all my life, but I’ve worked in engineering/scientific disciplines that provided input into my technical and commercial writing projects. As an inquisitive person, I tend to gobble up information related to my latest project whatever the subject matter.
My creative writing this past year has had me working on researching historical documents from the early 1800’s primarily in Tennessee, Georgia, Arkansas and Texas. That research has been for my historical novel, a work in progress that centers on the Texas Revolution and forced removal of the eastern native American tribes; also known as The Trail of Tears.
In my recently published book, Closed Doors, a Trilogy, I researched and did fact-finding during the year of 1958 on real people and places that summer. I also researched contemporary scientific data, and the structure and composition of government bureaus and law enforcement organizations in Australia. The concept for Toxic Situations is taken from a professional journal article by geneticist J.J. Brown, PhD.
TJ: How do you go about turning what you’ve found out into a story, and how much does research influence your plot and character development?
RW: The plots and characters for my short stories to date are derived from personal experience mostly. I took creative license with the outcomes, but these stories are based primarily on actual events. The characters are composites of people I’ve known or dealt with. The plot for Toxic Situations is an entirely different story. It was developed by using data from the CIA fact book and other electronic resources. Most government agencies publish descriptions of their role in government. I relied on those sources as well. More than 80% of the novella is based on research. The characters are entirely fictional but, as with any author, influenced by public figures and people I have known. I’ve worked in some large bureaucracies so I understand how people in groups interact. Some of my descriptions of tactics are based on the writings of experts in the field, news events and pop fiction.
TJ: What are your most commonly used and most useful sources for fact-finding? Any you would particularly recommend to other writers?
RW: Historical non-fiction books help, as do library archives and newspaper morgues. I’ve mentioned others already like current news stories, the CIA fact book and almanacs are helpful for general information. You can find a wealth of information in books on the geography, flora and fauna of a particular region. For every hour I write, I spend about eighty hours of research when working on historical content. I’m meticulous when it comes to historical accuracy. That’s why my historical novel is still a work in progress.
TJ: What’s the most unusual subject you’ve ever researched for your writing?
RW: Some of the earliest writing involved research into a miniature cryogenic converter, gallium-arsenide crystal detectors and lenses and how they could be used to protect our crews and pilots in combat. Can’t say much more than that.
TJ: Ah, top secret, eh? Then I’ll ask no more on that. What are the greatest lengths you’ve ever gone to find something out?
RW: One of the most time consuming projects required research into the correct way to insert instrumentation through a series of valves down the bore of an oil well, under thousands of pounds of pressure. If not done correctly, a blowout ensues with risk of injury and explosion. I was writing a script to train oil field workers. It involved interviews with engineers and designers of the equipment and other experts in the field.
TJ: What’s the funniest thing you’ve found out and/or had happen to you while you’ve been researching?
RW: LOL, I’m not sure I can answer that one. One I will mention is in my short story, Family Secrets. It’s more of a personal experience than research but maybe something to share here. During a huge family gathering, I turned a bullfrog loose in a group of cousins my age with adults watching. Pretty funny and it’s in the book.
TJ: *Grins*. Art imitating life. How important do you think factual research is to a writer vs. a purely imaginative approach?
RW: I think it depends on the genre and period. With some sci-fi, speculative fiction and paranormal, anything goes. In much of historical fiction and literary fiction, the opposite is true. When writing about real people, places or things facts must be accurate or people in-the-know will either walk away and never read your work again, or worse. Actually, my primary reason for fact-checking is having the satisfaction of knowing that what I’ve written is the best it can be—to my knowledge.
TJ: Do you ask your beta readers/editor to fact-check for you?
RW: Yes I do. It may be time consuming but sometimes others can find facts and detail we as writers might miss. If I’m in error, I want to know.
TJ: Has anyone ever questioned your research? How important do you think factual accuracy is to most readers, or are they just after a good story?
RW: I question research all the time. There’s far too much speculative writing that is presented as fact. It’s important to check the credibility of sources. As to the importance of accuracy, again I think it is dependent on genre.
TJ: How much research did you do for your latest book, Toxic Situations? Was it an easy story to research?
RW: As mentioned earlier, most of the research dealt with organizations, practices and factual details that are readily available online. The potential risk of biohazards getting into the wrong hands is explained in a medical journal that I cite in the book. Researching this story was much easier than the historical research I’ve done in the past.
TJ: Do you enjoy the research process? What does it mean to you personally?
RW: Good research becomes the foundation of a writing project. As an inquisitive writer, I find it exciting when I experience a ‘light bulb’ moment. Research means a great deal to me. In addition to the subject I’m actually researching, it’s great when I stumble upon material I can use at another time. I try to read with an open mind and I’ve found that rewarding in many aspects of my life.
TJ: Research would seem to involve several skills. Which are most important for a writer, and how can they be improved?
RW: When researching, it is important to be objective and approach the subject as if I know very little. That’s what the scientific method is all about: unbiased observations. Documenting is the next important skill. Today we have the ability to instantly record images, sounds, conversations and motion video. This is an advantage our forbears did not have. That said, it is still important to take meticulous notes in a journal, on cards, in a database record or whatever one prefers. This is the stuff of fact-gathering. The rest involves using our personal experiences and imaginations to craft a compelling story.
TJ: Well that brings me to the end of this interrogation. Thank you for your in depth answers. I hope it hasn’t been too arduous?
RW: No, it has been a pleasure. Thanks, T. James, for tossing me some provocative questions.
About Rich Weatherly And His Writing, In His Own Words
I am a husband, father and grandfather. My writing is from a Christian worldview. I’ve been a writer my entire career. I started with tech writing and moved on to commercial productions. These included training and safety programs – satisfying because they saved lives. Trade show videos made our products and services look good. I felt good when they did. Creative writing always gave me my greatest enjoyment. That’s why I’m doing it now.
My book, Closed Doors opens with a novella, Toxic Situations. A break-in at an Atlanta, Georgia laboratory results in the theft of avian flu virus capsules by organized crime figures and an investigation by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. CDC investigators pursue suspects on a trail from Atlanta to Sydney, Australia. Protagonists for the novella and short stories are named Craig. Craig Jr. is featured in the novella, Toxic Situations. Toxic Situations is followed by two short story prequels: Family Secrets and Thrills at the Esplanade Cinema. These short stories are set in north Texas. Each story has ties to the Craig Wells family.
Closed Doors, a Trilogy is available now, in Kindle format, from Amazon.com,
and also from Amazon.co.uk.
Rich can be found on Twitter: @RichWeatherly43.
Samples of his poetry, writing, book reviews and interviews can be found on his blog: richweatherly.wordpress.com.
If you are a writer, what are your thoughts on research and the part it plays in writing? If you are a reader, how important is it to you that a story is thoroughly researched?