Wednesday, March 27, 2019

The Insidious Seduction of Research

Sacchi Green

Even fiction needs to get its facts right. Unless you’re building your own new world from the atom up, you need to be sure you’re right about such aspects of our real world as you’ve decided to include. This matters most if your story is based on history, or set in far-away places where you’ve never been, but even ordinary every-day things can be screwed up. I, for instance, would have to do more research than I care to bother with if I were writing a scene where a woman puts on elaborate make-up, whereas if somebody else’s story with a scene about gardening got the basics wrong I’d lose my trust in the story as a whole.

I’ve been extra-busy writing a series of posts for a Blog Tour being run by Dirt Road Books to introduce my new collection, Wild Rides, and when I cast about for topics for today's post here,
the theme of research kept nudging at me. Even short stories, and even short erotica stories, can require research of various kinds to reach their full potential. Any writer wants to be sure that settings, references to events, bits of history, and cultural matters are depicted well enough that no reader who might be more expert in those things will complain. We’d like to think that the steam of our sex scenes would distract anyone from noticing tiny details, but there’s no counting on that.

Those are practical considerations, but to tell the truth, I just really love the research. Often I get so lost in it that it slows down my writing, leading me on to new ideas to use as building blocks for new stories, but it’s worth it, especially when, as happens surprisingly often, what I find out confirms what I already thought, and lets my story go places I want it to go.

A few examples—or at least I’ll try to keep it to a few. Since the new collection is on my mind, I’ll start with examples from there.

For my story “Lipstick on Her Collar,” I researched life for women in the U.S. military during the Vietnam War. The anthology I was editing then had already been given that title by the publisher, and I figured there should be a story by that name in the book, so the obvious thing to do was to do research on the  Connie Francis song “Lipstick on Your Collar,” and on the singer herself. I found that she had entertained the troops in Vietnam and, as my character says, “gone places Bob Hope wouldn’t, hopping flights in Hueys and Chinooks to give the boys in the boonies a look at what they’re fighting for.” My story began to take shape. For accurate details, I read several memoirs of WACs and nurses who had been “in country.” In my story, of course, the “collar” in question is on a WAC jeep driver forced to act as guide to a female journalist. Both adventure and sexual sparks ensue.

For another story, “Pirate from the Sky,” I did research on an actual Chinese woman pirate, of whom there were, surprisingly, quite a few. The one that fit the time period I was using, the prelude to WWII, was Lai Choi San of Macao, also know as Mountain of Wealth, and more notably The Dragon Lady of Bias Bay (possibly the inspiration for the Dragon Lady character in Milton Kaniff’s comic strip Terry and the Pirates, though by no means as glamorous.) I made my characters be former female aides of hers, outfitted with a pirate ship for her profit, but now escaping into the far reaches of the Pacific and harrying Japanese war ships whenever possible. I also did research on the other main character, a female airplane pilot, but I’ll leave you to figure out the real person she was modeled after.

Even some of my more contemporary stories needed research, since I’ve never actually been in Paris searching out gargoyles, or in battle in the Middle East, or in a women’s prison. And I’ve never been in Amsterdam in the 1980s, where, as it turns out, there was actually a country/western themed club at the time like the one in my story. Research for the win!

Sometimes a bit of information or news leaps out at you and sets off a story idea that requires further research. My first and probably only novel, Shadow Hand, was sparked by news items about Kurdish and Yazidi women being kidnapped by ISIS into sex slavery, even being sold via social  media—and other news items about Kurdish and Yazidi women soldiers in the Peshmerga army of resistance. How my further research into sex-trafficking in the USA, particulary Massachusetts, also affects the book is a long story,  so I’ll be merciful, and let it go at that.

Yeah, I know, you want to know whether I did research on the sex for the stories, too, but let’s not go there now. You’ll have to read them to see if I got it right.  


  1. Terrific post, Sacchi, and you're right--it's all in the details. I've found that when you write contemporary using actual locations or occupations, you can't fool anyone in the digital age where it's easy to Google something to check your facts. I don't know about you, but when I depict a location, the last thing I want is for someone familiar with it to ask "Has this guy ever been here???"

  2. I actually really liked SHADOW HAND, but one thing that bugged me is that you never actually come right out and say where the desert scenes or the rescue of the Yazidis are set. The geographic and atmospheric details seemed very plausible, though.

    I'm a bit in awe of your research energy. I tend to do the minimum possible to be convincing, at least most of the time. I did put quite a bit of effort into the research for the Victorian sections of Miranda's Masks. In particular, I searched out a lot of information about Victorian clothing -- I needed this because it was likely to be coming off!

  3. When I was asked to propose a plot for a superheroine book, I was told not to make it political, and my proposal was accepted when I said I'd try to keep it more generic than specifically political. Of course this didn't really work, because war is always political. I did try at first not to be too specific about where things occurred and who the enemy was, but the content editor assigned to me urged me to do it anyway, so I did include the name of Al-Ukhaidir, the actual ruins of a fortress/palace about 75 miles southwest of Baghdad. The modern army fort was modeled after one someone I know had been posted to in Afghanistan, but my research showed that similar forts were used in Iraq. I pored over maps and descriptions of Kurdistan and news stories about the Kurds and Yazidis, and had a pretty good grip on the nature of the terrain. I even had a stroke of luck when a woman filmmaker who had made a documentary about the women Peshmerga soldiers came to the theater in Amherst to show and discuss her film. I did, clearly, get political, and the editor encouraged it, but I never came out and said that some of it was in Iraq.

    I think the problem with the book, which doesn't appeal to superhero fans, is that my original novellla-length story was expanded into novel-length on the advice of the editor. Some of the expanded areas she urged me to write went against my short-story instincts, but I did them. I can sort of understand the complaints of there being too many slow parts.

    One quasi-amusing bit: a reviewer who hated the book has written a rave review of the new collection of my own work, Wild Rides. She even mentions in that review that she hadn't liked the novel at all, but sees now that I can write excellent short stories. For what those are worth.


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