If they wished to describe a foreign location or a technical procedure of some complexity, and if they got it all or even peripherally wrong, the chances are their readers would not know. For the modern thriller writer, by contrast, accuracy is now obligatory.
As a Reuters-trained journalist, I always thought it was anyway. So I was surprised when, after the appearance of "The Day of the Jackal" in 1971, people started asking me, "Why do you describe things in such detail?"
As a novelist nowadays, you have to assume that everything you say will be, for some reader somewhere (and maybe for hundreds of them), something they know a lot about. And they do not forgive slovenly descriptions riddled with errors.
Frankly, it makes the task very hard work. You want to set a scene in Istanbul but cannot actually go there? Research it until a reader who lives there cannot find fault in your account.
There are now aids to research that Messrs. Ambler and Household never had, the biggest and most-used of them being the Internet. Some, I know, swear by it and spend days pouring over the little silver screen. If you are starting out and funds are tight, the Internet and the reference library may be all that your budget will permit. For all that, do not stint on getting the facts right.
Another resource is a book written by someone who knows a subject intimately. It may be a travelogue or a technical manual. There is no plagiarism if you simply lift the facts, because facts are facts and there is no copyright in them.
Hitler marched into Poland at 5 a.m. on Sept. 1, 1939, and that is a fact. It is easily found in, for example, William Shirer's "The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich." So there should be no problem in getting that nugget of history absolutely right.
If funds permit, I prefer to go to a place, if the scenes I want to describe are lengthy and rather detailed. When it comes to locations, there is no substitute for going there to see for yourself. You spot things that can be found in no memoir, no guidebook, no Google entry—small details that, collectively, create "the ring of truth" (an overused but still accurate phrase).
“Delve for amazing, new anecdotes. When asked where they're from, say: 'I have friends in low places.'”
The final weapon in the researcher's arsenal is the long conversation with someone, often retired, who spent his whole life in that profession, or that place, or handling that particular piece of machinery or technology.
If I want a scene on a Scottish trawler in the Denmark Strait, I'll find an old fishing skipper in the Scottish town of Peterhead and ask him to tell me what it was like. And here's the joy of it: Most veterans simply love to describe their area of expertise. The problem is usually synthesizing what you really need for your story from the hours of fond reminiscences of the old boy in the cardigan.
I have a reputation for writing fast—about 45 days per novel. But that is deceptive. Ten standard pages a day is not a back-breaker, just six hours tapping away. That will yield 450 pages, a completed thriller novel.
What does not emerge from that figure is the six preceding months of slow, painstaking research, resulting in several tables spread with personal notes, tear sheets from magazines, cut-out newspaper articles, maps, photos and reference books. And all those jotted interviews with the experts.
Frankly, the research is the interesting bit, not the tapping of keys. It is from the discreet conversations with veterans of a half-century of different professions, some mundane but some really secretive, that you get the amazing anecdotes that never saw the light of day—until you came along.
So when people ask: How on earth did you discover that? I just say: "Shhhhh. I have friends in low places."
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